Boyé Lafayette De Mente
In the 1950s and 60s one of the bestselling books in Japan was The Art of War, the classic written by the Chinese military strategist and tactician Sun Tzu around 500 B.C. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese businessmen bought and virtually memorized the book not because they were bent on starting a new war but because they were absolutely determined to succeed in business.
This extraordinary idea of using the stratagems of war to succeed in business obviously worked—in fact, the approach worked so well that in just 20 fast years tiny war-devastated Japan morphed into the world’s second largest economy.
And now China is well on its way to replacing Japan as the world’s second largest economic power for two simple reasons. Near the end of the 1970s ordinary Chinese were allowed [for the first time in the history of the country] to utilize the dynamics of capitalism and the world’s marketplace, combined with the principles and practices espoused in The Art of War, to help themselves.
The primary principle taught by Sun Tsu was that the general must know everything there is to know about the enemy and be prepared to both anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances as they occur. This meant that the general has to have up-to-the-minute intelligence, know his own strengths and weaknesses thoroughly, and know when and how to take advantage of the circumstances.
Sun Tsu used the term bian (bee-een) as one of the basic principles in his formula for success. It refers to flexibility, and incorporates the idea of both anticipating and adapting to changing circumstances.
Just as the Japanese had some 30 years earlier, the Chinese associated these stratagems of war with achieving success in business, particularly when they were dealing with foreign companies that could easily be viewed as the enemy.
The emergence of China as an economic superpower in less than three decades validates equating war with both politics and business, and is especially appropriate for the United States, where the prevailing culture tends to view and treat war, politics and business as separate entities.
As I note in my book The Chinese Have a Word for It (from which bian is extracted), virtually all Chinese businesspeople are skilled in the use of “war” strategies and tactics in their conduct of business because it is embedded in their culture.
This pragmatic approach to business often provides the Chinese with advantages in their dealings with Americans and other foreigners whose concept of business is generally one-dimensional and therefore limits them in what they do and how the do it.
I recommend that foreigners dealing with China—in business as well as in political affairs—be thoroughly versed in Sun Tsu’s guidelines, particularly when it comes to knowing enough about the mindset and plans of their Chinese counterparts to anticipate their actions, and to have their own strategies and tactics ready to deal with them.
Americans have already learned the lesson that it is usually politicians, not generals, who lose wars; and that it is also generally politicians who hamper the conduct of business.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
For a detailed description of The Chinese Have a Word for It and the author’s 60-plus other books on China, Korea, Japan and Mexico, go to his personal website: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/, and/or insert his full name into Amazon.com’s Books Search facility.