Despite having been written more than two millennia ago, “The Art Of War” is still hugely influential well beyond military circles. It’s spawned multiple business-focused books, and is considered required reading for executives.
There are some areas, however, where it shows its age, and blind dedication to its advice could lead to some pretty bad business habits.
We’ve broken out a few of its axioms that modern managers would be wise to completely ignore.
“Though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.”
In the age of the startup, this is pretty bad advice. Assuming that sheer size means eventual victory is a great way to become complacent and lose out.
“Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.”
Startups, or the companies that used to be startups, love to claim that as they grow, they’ll maintain the same culture, only on a larger scale. That’s naive. A larger organisation requires a different approach than a company with just a few people in the room.
“Confront your soldiers with the deed itself; never let them know your design. When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.”
This is an incredibly poor piece of advice that is, unfortunately, often followed by managers. Thinking it will prevent information from leaking to the outside, managers may not share key information with employees. That doesn’t just demoralize people, it makes them worse at their jobs. It’s hard to take initiative or be entrepreneurial when kept in the dark.
The second part is worse. Keeping poor performance a secret from employees is always a losing game. They’ll find out, they’ll resent it, and they’ll jump ship.
“Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline; simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.”
This might be worthwhile in warfare, but pretending to be a mess as a person or a company is going to attract a lot more attention or publicity than competence. And once a negative impression’s been formed, it can be very difficult to reverse.
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