Skip to content

Sun Tzu and the Non-Profit (1): Foundations

The Art of War is one of those stone-cold classics that not many people have read, despite its widely touted relevance beyond military applications (i.e. business). This is a shame, because it’s (a) really good; (b) short; (c) free online, including an audiobook version that’s free to active Audible subscribers.

Rather than reading Sun Tzu and the Art of Business myself I thought I’d have a dig at the original from a non-profit perspective and see what comes up.

If I remember anything from the secondhand edition I used to own (the one with the forward by James Clavell), the next installment will be about chopping the heads off underperforming managers…

Here’s a good bit from chapter one to set us up.

Five Constants and Seven Questions

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Five Constants

The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are:

(1) The Moral Law;
(2) Heaven;
(3) Earth;
(4) The Commander;
(5) Method and discipline.

The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

Seven Questions

Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:

(1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law?
(2) Which of the two generals has most ability?
(3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
(5) Which army is stronger?
(6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
(7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.

The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:–let such a one be dismissed!

Sun Tzu – The Art of War

Reflections and notes about applications to your context welcome.

See Also:

DriverlessCroc Series on Strategy
William Slim on operations and administration
One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor: Paul Fussell on Experience and Perspective

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...