Read Nelson Mandela, not Sun Tzu

Survey after survey of company executives across different countries has consistently revealed that the most consulted management book (some even confess it’s on their nightstand) is “Sun Tzu: The Art of War”; and it’s no surprise. Since the popularisation of management books, ‘pop management’ books can be found on any street corner newsstand, and in airport bookshops, they’re next to the self-help section, in between the Sudokus and gossip magazines. Certainly, the pressures of less time and increased travel demands have spawned some rather unsophisticated reading material amongst managers.

Written by a Chinese warrior, Sun Tzu is about military strategies to defeat the enemy. I admit that some of its passages might provide food for thought for those in the business world. However, while it’s true that we must earn our place out in the market, let’s not fool ourselves, business strategy and competitiveness cannot be built from a place of confrontation.

Business managers would be better advised to seek out writings by other thinkers, and there are many to choose from, in the world of politics, the arts, philosophy, or sports; people who can provide managers with something to really “chew on”. One such source of inspiration is Nelson Mandela. Given a choice, I would pick a leader who proclaims that “Love is the way for both friend and foe”, instead of someone who makes a “call to arms”.

From his prison cell on Robben Island, Mandela invited us to dream about building a better future based on the premise that “It all seems impossible until it’s done”, a wonderful principle which is all too often not found in business management. The systematic exploration of luck, that quest to achieve the impossible and to find new inroads, is an essential task of strategic management in any organisation.

The search for sustainable business projects with room for future growth, the need for transcendence in organisations, as well as constantly setting themselves new challenges can clearly be inferred from Mandela’s appeal that a dynamic of continuous new objectives and challenges must be generated, “After climbing a large hill, one only finds is that there are many more hills to climb”.

Mandela’s humanist outlook on life prompts one to think long and hard about the role of people in an organization. I think that many of us who have to manage a company must keep in mind two of his quotes: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but rather he who conquers that fear”, and “A good head and a good heart is always a formidable combination”. We need managers with people first and foremost on their minds, and who, while acknowledging their own weaknesses, have the capacity to overcome them for the good of their organizations.

From the midst of a full-blown economic crisis, I would like to conclude with two more thoughts. Today, as we search for remedies to our situation, it is painfully evident to us that we did not do our homework while we had the chance during the last economic boom, “When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat”. Instead of short-sighted policies rolled out by many management teams, Mandela calls upon us to anticipate and prepare for the future.

* Published in El Economista, 09/04/2013 (Spanish)

Sabin Azua

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