Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Know the limits of your management skills (Part 1)

Many small business owners are familiar with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and its implications about business. On the whole as a management text it has fallen out of favor with most people in business for its aggressive comparisons to war and the not so easy to apply when not engaged in an actual war tactics. However while both points may be true, many aspects of the text have real relevance for managers at all levels of an organization today. For the purposes of this blog I will focus on the ones related to being a strategic leader.

In the text, Sun Tzu states “there are 5 dangerous traits of a general” that will always lead to their downfall and the downfall of their army. More important than this however is the fact that Sun Tzu doesn’t mention redeeming traits of generals, he doesn’t offer solutions or recommendations to overcome these traits. Instead of Sun Tzu offering ways to become a better general, he offers the best advice about strategic leadership that I have ever come across when he simply says “they must be examined.” The reason that it is such great advice is that these traits are personal and inherent and cannot be overcome completely. The best you can do as leader is identify which trait you are the most prone to and try your best to check yourself against them. However since the traits are personal how you check them will be up to you, but in part 2 of this blog on the topic I will provide some techniques to try to check them.

In an effort to examine the traits like Sun Tzu said I will offer you his words, my interpretation of them for business leaders, and then offer a couple of personal questions to help you determine your most likely “dangerous trait”

  1. “He who is reckless can be killed” – In other words think before taking action. Do you charge head first into difficult tasks? Has anyone ever complimented your “bulldog” style of management? Have you ever been assigned to clean up a department or business?
  2. “He who is cowardly can be captured”- If you don’t act like a leader, no one will support you. Do you have a hard time making tough decisions? Are your subordinates walking all over you? Have you ever had to carry out a decision made for you?
  3. “He who is quick-tempered can be insulted”- Getting mad and getting even are only distractions. Have you ever used an axe to swat a fly? Do people at work really know how to press your buttons? Do you burn bridges?
  4. “He who is moral can be shamed”- Taking the moral high road is great, but you are not always the authority. Do you publicly criticize other people’s management decisions? Do you often say the best way to lead is by your actions? Does the balance of right and wrong guide your every decision?
  5. “He who is fond of the people can be worried”- Lead your people, don’t let your people lead you. Do you worry if your subordinates like you? Have you worked harder to cover for an employee? Is popular approval more important to you than the tough decision?

My dangerous trait is morality. I think I make the best decisions in the world, I criticize others and I base my decisions on what is more morally right than wrong. What is your dangerous trait? How would you attempt to overcome them? Remember to come back for part 2 of this topic and I will put forth some potential techniques for checking yourself against these traits.