Nonfiction books are a lot like fashion. Much like designers nowadays source their inspiration from centuries long gone (hello, gladiator sandals!), many of today’s nonfiction books are based on ideas much older than themselves. The market is flooded with loads of items every year, but only a select few are special enough to withstand the seasons and become classics – this is especially true in the world of management books.
Our search for the classic takes us way back to the feral roots of it all, the origin of managing people… to The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general said to have lived around 500 BC. But wait, war? Isn’t that a little extreme?
Not really. Even today as most countries live in relative peace, war metaphors are omnipresent in business language. Browsing any business paper will tell the tale: even though ‘competitors’ used to ‘strive together’ by original meaning, they frequently declare war on each other, start an arms race or battle over market shares. It’s obvious: if you want to succeed in this world, you have to know your strategies.
What’s most remarkable about The Art of War, though – and that’s presumably the reason it’s ever so popular in bookstores around the world – is that lots of what Sun Tzu put down on his scrolls way back still applies to today’s world. Here are the top 3 key pieces of advice for your career and everyday work life:
- Build trust.
Any leader needs their followers to trust them. If those around you can’t rely on your actions, they will start to get nervous. After all, it’s their lives you’re gambling with. Once people get the impression that you don’t know what you’re doing, they won’t want you in charge anymore. If you’re an army general, this may mean a coup, and if you’re a young professional in a leadership position, this will spoil your chances of advancing further and may even result in you losing your job. You don’t want either to happen. Instead, you want to have your team know that they can rely on you. So keep your promises – if you tell someone you will get back to them, actually do it! Don’t change your mind every other minute and tell everyone about it, and generally avoid unaccountable behaviour.
- Know your territory.
This is an integral part of establishing trustworthiness and generally kicking ass. Back in the day, this would have meant gorges and streams, hills and valleys, and generally every form of landscape that could put you and your soldiers at an advantage or disadvantage against your enemy. Now that you (hopefully) don’t have an actual army against you but are merely battling the forces of the market, your territory isn’t a three-dimensional landscape anymore. It’s your product, who you’re working with, what your assets are and much more. In short: know your stuff. This applies to those of us who are still interviewing as well as to those in charge of a 30 people team. Don’t go around boasting with your knowledge. While people do want to work with a reliable and well-informed individual, nobody appreciates a know-it-all.
- Be patient.
In Sun Tzu’s scripture, this evergreen of a tip is mostly used to keep you from running into an enemy’s trap. He suggests to sit the situation out instead, have your soldiers camp around a water source and wait for the opposing army to slowly starve/dehydrate and become desperate so they will thoughtlessly attack and fail. The gist of this isn’t for you to drink more water (even though we advise you to, of course), but for everyone to calm down and not make any haphazard decisions. This is especially important when you are responsible for others’ welfare as well. Think things through and have the courage to wait when circumstances are less than perfect. The right time will come.
For more 2500 year old, yet surprisingly relatable, notes on battling and military strategy, check out the full book here. Now go out there and win the war.
(If all this is still a little too belligerent for your liking and you prefer a softer approach, you can always get in touch with your more gentle side and build your leadership style on The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown.)