Sun Tzu Revisited

Written on January 18, 2008 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies

www.SantiagoIniguez.com, Dean of IE Business School

Not too long ago I was in Beijing on a several day working visit to China. The capital city was for centuries the place where Heaven met the OrbBei_1 (photo: Temple of Heaven) and it seemed that it had regained this nature given the profusion of high buildings under construction, in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games taking place there. Amazingly, many of the big works underway are not visible since they are done underneath the city’s surface, including new tube lines, improved infrastructure, new cables and pipes. One of our hosts told me that there are probably many more workers employed underground than in the open air. At the same time, some people are concerned about the current hectic development of Beijing and whether large parts of the old city will be gobbled by new buildings and disappear for ever. The pleasant and sunny days in Beijing provided my colleagues and I with enjoyable trips between meetings across the wide but yet heavily congested avenues of this reticulated city.

Afterwards, on a flight to Shanghai, I reread Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War", the celebrated Chinese classic that is highly regarded by managers and academics as one of the pillars of military strategy literature. I first read it while doing my MBA and have come back to it frequently to find passages for use in my classes at IE. It is not entirely clear whether Sun Tzu was a real person who lived two thousand years ago or if the book is a collection of ideas that were passed along by word of mouth with multiple additions in the process, like similar pieces of ancient literature. The book is a brief manual for men in command and leaders, ambitious and with a strong determination to achieve their objectives –whenever the text mentions "warlord" you can read "CEO". The warlord profiled in the book recalls the archetype of post-modern leader that I referred to in a previous post in this blog. The book is composed of 13 Chapters and written as a flow of maxims or advice, quite easy to read although quite reiterative.

I do not want to enter here the debate about whether "The Art of War" is a valuable piece of strategy for managers or whether its contents are immoral or encourage readers to fight inhumanly until they annihilate opponents. The fact is that it is a bestseller of management literature and has overcome the ravages of time. I am sure that its readers have enough critical judgement to evaluate what parts of the book are usable and which are not advisable or unethical. Undeniably, the book prompts reflection and introspection and its intuitive maxims have been expressed in same or analogous forms in many other places.

The first sentence of the book struck me as blunt in my first reading as it did yesterday: "Conflict is essential to the development of man and society". However, my favourite part of the first chapter is when it says "Do what I tell you to do. You will then be always successful in war. If you ask what happens if he does the same thing to you, you do not understand what I am talking about. Study deeply". I believe I understand what the author means but I am willing to exchange opinions about other meanings with those of you who read the book.

What I miss in "The Art of War" is more thoughts on cooperation strategies, which have proven to be decisive for success in management theory and practice in the past decades. Cooperation and competition are complementary, the ying and the yang, using the Chinese philosophical paradigm that is also applicable to business. Should we search for an author who could write, with equal deepness and sharpness to that of Sun Tzu’s, a book called "The Art of Peace" or "The Art of Cooperation"? The world needs it, and management education needs it too.


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