Bring together a modern cartoonist with an ancient Chinese military leader, and what do you get? Ten simple rules for running your organization.
The military strategist is Sun Tsu. The cartoonist is Seattle's Jessica Hagy, known for Indexed, charts and diagrams drawn on 3 by 5 index cards that she shares on her website.
As an artist, she's an entrepreneur. Seeking advice, she turned to The Art of War, Sun Tsu's classic in which many business people have found inspiration. She was wary but ended up captivated. "I was pleasantly surprised it wasn't violent. It was thoughtful," she said in an interview.
The book is divided into 13 chapters, tackling themes such as laying plans, classification of terrain, weak points and strong, and of course, waging war. It's a series of about 300 verses that she decided needed illustration.
Her own book with those illustrations is called The Art of War Visualized. "It became clear that The Art of War is massively popular because Sun Tzu's insights apply to all conflicts, great or small. The advice in these pages is as applicable to a 10-year-old running for student council president as it is to a conquering general. It's less about war than it is about problem solving – it's a meta-metaphor. War is merely the stand-in noun for every hassle you've ever had in your life. We're all fighting for something or other. Lucky for us, Sun Tzu gave us a game plan," she writes.
She distilled the game plan into 10 lessons, published on ChangeThis.com:
1. Ideas are always subjective
Nobody has a blank slate when they evaluate an idea or situation. Biases are baked in. Acknowledging them allows you to push them aside and make judgments more clearly. Recognizing others have different viewpoints – no two people will see the same information in the same way – keeps you from making mistakes or being surprised.
2. Plans should not be firm
Since situations are constantly changing, your plans must be fluid not firm. "We get upset when things don't go the way we expected. We need to accept that change is inevitable. It makes less of a sting; we don't take it personally. Adapt and you will survive," she said in the interview. But she has an asterisk with this rule, for brunch with friends: "You have to treat some things with sacredness. You can't flake out on people."
3. Nothing is ever accomplished alone
We are part of teams, cultures, and ecosystems. Recognize those interconnections, she says, and be humble. A fuss erupted a few years ago in the United States about whether entrepreneurs need government or build things by themselves. She's an entrepreneur and art is certainly very personal. But she stresses: "No one builds anything alone. We take advantage of hundreds of things around and before us."
4. Research saves lives (and dollars)
We often believe we have to move quickly and make gut decisions. Even due diligence is done hastily – just enough so a deal can be signed. "The more you know, the more you can do. The less you know, the more you are doomed," she writes.
5. Calculated risk is the only risk worth taking
This flows from the importance of research. "If we don't do the research, we're gambling," she said in the interview. The Art of War taught her things are very complex, and must be thought through. Be cautious and aware of all ramifications. Be guarded in risk.
6. Character is revealed by challenges
From adversity comes opportunity. "Accept adversity with open arms as if you don't have it, you wouldn't know what you can do," she said.
7. Always choose strategy over busy
Avoid the cult of busy. Stop and think. You'll avoid train wrecks and knee-jerk reactions that land you in trouble. She could spend her whole day responding to fans on Twitter. "If I went down that rabbit hole, I would be very busy but not thinking and drawing," she says.
8. Know everyone's motivations
You need to know what people want – and that will only come by asking. "When negotiating anything, from buying a car to going in for a kiss, knowing what other people want is of the utmost importance. We need to think from other people's perspectives in order to further our own causes," she writes.
9. Morale is precious
The attitude and feelings of people matter as much as the activity or situation you are in. In a company where everyone is miserable, performance will suffer. Sun Tsu told generals to feed their people and pay them well.
10. Leadership is about calculation
Figure out what your people need and give it to them. "Leadership is not about being bombastic or having an aura around you. It's about what you can do for others," she says.
She feels we struggle the most with the first rule, neglecting to consider our differences from others. She views strategy as "universal empathy," so your activities should flow from taking the time to understand others.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter