In Leadership As a Lens we started a series on leadership models.
And, to kick things off, we’re going back almost 2,500 years to learn from Sun Tzu … the great military strategist.
Why? You may ask.
First, Sun Tzu’s The Art of Strategy* … or The Art of War if you prefer … is probably the earliest leadership text.
What’s more, it provides us with a template — model of leadership — for life experiences and dealing with conflict. Now, before you think this is for military leaders, let me tell you it’s definitely not.
It is about overcoming obstacles.
Those who are skilled in executing strategy, bend the strategy of others without conflict. – Sun Tzu
Conflict is costly. Conflict affects people. It affects businesses. Conflict puts obstacles in the way of progress. Does that sound like an everyday circumstance?
Well, I think it does.
Daily, in one way or another, we face conflict in work and our personal lives. And, this is where Sun Tzu can help us.
The Art of Strategy is about resolving everyday conflicts. Those nonnegotiable conflicts that stop us growing.
These affect our inner self, the place we live, our place of work, our deeply personal relationships, and those we work with every day. A destructive relationship, poor health or a dead-end job cannot be resolved through compromise. They are obstacles that must be overcome.
The The Art of Strategy* is to bend others to your cause without coming to conflict. And, it all begins with an understanding of the opponent.
The Original Situational Leadership
Hersey and Blanchard may have coined situational leadership theory, but it was Sun Tzu who first understood its significance.
Of course, Hersey and Blanchard’s model of situational leadership is not about nonnegotiable conflict. It’s about adapting leadership styles according to situation.
But to do that … we need a good awareness of the facts.
And so too, Sun Tzu believed we must fully understand a situation before even considering confrontation. This means we:
- are clear about our goals and those of our opponent,
- have confidence in the probity and benefit of those goals,
- assess the difficulty of the challenge, and
- grasp the courage and determination of all parties to see them through.
Or, to put it another way … we carefully examine the situation first. And, only then do we remove the conflict.
The 5 Fundamentals of Strategy
Therefore, calculate a plan with five working fundamentals, and examine the conditions of each. – Sun Tzu
This is what we learn from Sun Tzu about strategy. The fundamentals of strategy are:
- Tao – Leaders inspire people to share the same ideas and expectations.
- Nature – There are things leaders cannot change.
- Situation – There are things leaders can change.
- Leadership – The leader refuses to compromise their hopes or limit opportunities.
- Art – Leaders put the Art of Strategy into practice.
The World Is Full of Options
The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise, and thinking that having problems is a problem. – Theodore Issac Rubin
Perhaps, the most important lesson we can take from The Art of Strategy* is that fighting is the last thing we should do in any situation.
Fighting is but one option, and should be used in the last resort. Skilled leaders know this.
So, what does this model of leadership tell us?
Well, to answer this, let’s focus on conflict among leaders and apply the five fundamentals of strategy to our unique situations.
Conflict Among Leaders
Use strategy to bend others without coming to conflict. – Sun Tzu
Now, it’s not uncommon for leaders in the same business to be in conflict. Much of the time, we may compromise or limit opportunity. Sometimes though, it is necessary to take on an opponent.
- So, the first thing we learn — the Tao — is to be certain the goal is worthwhile. In other words, is the path we are taking compatible with business objectives, and does it attract the support of senior leaders and those teams that do the work?
- The second thing we learn from Sun Tzu is some things are predictable and some are unpredictable — the Nature — and they cannot be changed. So, we must understand the territory and manoeuvre with agility and flexibility.
- We have choices. We cannot move mountains, but we can walk around them. So, the third lesson —the Situation — is to learn about the political landscape and the choices open to us. And, to take those choices when they help us to achieve our goals.
- Leadership is the fourth lesson. This doesn’t concern authority. In this Sun Tzu is very clear: “Leadership is intelligence, credibility, humanity, courage, and discipline.” We must not sacrifice our values for short term wins.
- Finally, we must learn the Art. That is, to play out the strategy. To take on our opponent in a rational and skilful way. Not head-on, but by attacking their plans without harming business using corporate diplomacy.
So we see, The Art of Strategy* is the art of avoiding unnecessary conflict. It presents an approach to triumph over nonnegotiable conflict and a model of personal leadership.
Image courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.