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Management in times of change: lessons from The Art of War

Though written 2,500 years ago, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is still highly relevant to business management in the 21st century.

By Juan Antonio Fernandez 01 March 2004

Though written 2,500 years ago, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is still highly relevant to business management in the 21st century. In this article Juan Antonio Fernandez updates Sun Tzu’s ideas and presents them in a business setting.
Management in times of change lessons from The Art of WarChina has always been a fertile land of great thinkers. Most of those philosophers were concerned not with metaphysical quests but to finding ways to live a correct life in society. No wonder they excelled in sociology, psychology, ethics and the organisation of society. They devoted themselves to searching for, examining and then prescribing ways of establishing a harmonious and orderly social life.


The consultant as philosopher


Sun Tzu lived in the state of Qi, the current Shangdong Province of China, around 500BC. Tzu was a respectful title people in the Chou Dynasty (11th century-255 BC) used to address philosophers. It can be translated as “professor” or “master”.

At that time, China was divided into numerous states engaged in virtually perpetual warfare. It was a time of chaos, with constant conflicts and upheavals. This period in Chinese history is known as the Warring States (475-221 BC).

It was also during this time that a group of scholars with expertise in the conduct of war and the organisation of the state travelled around the country, offering their advice to those rulers who were willing to pay for their services. They were the first consultants in history. Among them, Confucius (Kong Zi in Chinese) was undoubtedly the most famous. Sun Tzu belongs to the same category of philosopher-consultant.

Paradoxically, this time of social confusion and the decay of public institutions was also a golden age for China, a time of splendour in arts and philosophy. Among the many thinkers of the time, Sun Tzu is one of the few masters whose work has survived. Even today, 2,500 years later, his treatise The Art of War is still published and widely consulted.

The Art of War is the first practical book on how to manage armies and conduct wars. It is also one of the few masterpieces of antiquity that you can still find in any bookshop in the world.

But the question is how a work about military strategy written so many years ago can be relevant to contemporary management.

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