Knowing what is not certain

Well over two thousand years ago, the mysterious warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu compiled a series of essays suggesting how to achieve victory without fighting and building unassailable strength through understanding of the physics, politics and psychology of conflict.

And, in 2020, Sun Tzu’s wisdom is as relevant as ever, although we may have changed a few of the terms:  conflict = business survival; victory = sustainability; physics and politics = business strategy and so forth.

Sun Tzu believed that knowing was of prime importance for victory and expressed the situation as follows:

  • Knowing the other (=market, future) and knowing oneself : in one hundred battles, no danger
  • Not knowing the other and knowing oneself: one victory for one loss (viz. 50% odds)
  • Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself: in every battle certain defeat

Clearly, from Sun Tzu, the triumph over uncertainty is hugely dependent on oneself. The business leader of 2020 needs to be more alert, agile, resilient than ever before. The 2020 leader needs to:

  • Through introspection, have a firm understanding of your own hopes and fears, your prejudices, what you are most attached to, what you are willing to lose, what really motives you
  • Not be afraid of being wrong and be able to back down gracefully.
  • Listen more than speaking: I know what I think, want to hear what your think
  • Ask for help and tap into the powerhouse of humility as a key leadership strength
  • Recognize others and express gratitude for their contributions

The other aspect of Sun Tzu’s formula is to have knowledge of other, the market, the outside world. This is tough, because the certainty about what will happen tomorrow, over the next six months or over the next five years, is as clouded as it has ever been. Do you really believe the on the morning of the World Cup final, Siya Kolisi was really certain that the Springboks would win? Was he certain that England would stick to their previous game plan, or did he consider that Eddie Jones may have a few tricks up his sleeve?

The smart approach for a business leader in the uncertain 2020 is not to plan for one possible future, but for many potential alternatives. Doing so can help us better anticipate possible circumstances and — importantly —adapt when those circumstances threaten our ability to achieve our goals.

Living through extreme uncertainty means accepting that there are very few certain answers to any question. The biggest mistake you can make in a time of uncertainty is to be locked into a course of action with no willingness to alter that course when circumstances change.

The bases for crafting more than one possible scenario ought to be based on Sun Tzu’s adage: knowledge of all kinds rests on the foundation of details. This implies that the 2020 business leader must gather all the possible knowledge about the market in which he or she operates, the strategies of competitors, the capacity of suppliers, the needs and wants of clients, the complexity introduced by governments and regulators, the well-being and motivation of employees as well as the of society at large.

Tom Peters, in his book Re-imagine, articulates leadership as hereunder. The book was published in 2003 but wow, it certainly applies to the uncertainty of 2020:

  1. Leadership is joyous: a matchless opportunity to make a difference by marshalling the talents of others.
  2. Leadership is horrible: sorting thru’ the mess of human relations, day after day.
  3. Leadership is cool: glorious adventure that enables us to magnify our impact on the world.
  4. Leadership is lonely: a battle against doubt and dread in which you have only your own judgement.
  5. Leadership is the ultimate responsibility: an assumption of accountability for people that you cannot control, for actions you do not perform.
  6. Leadership is not what you think: it’s not about command and control or charisma; it’s about living in the depths and then soaring to the heights.
  7. Leadership is the ultimate new mandate: a never ending project with a breath-takingly simple and difficult core objective: re-imagine


Author: Leon Theron

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