“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”
— Sun Tzu
Clearly the master of military strategy and tactics, Sun Tzu was the most accomplished military mind of his time. Originating in Ancient China, his work continues to direct competitive endeavors in culture, politics, business, and sports, as well as modern warfare. But what if we were to apply it to business leadership? Like Sun Tzu, and the vast number of leaders who have utilized his teachings throughout history, I believe we would create an environment of victory for ourselves and our employees. The above quote clearly demonstrates Sun Tzu’s insight into human complexity, and provides a good opportunity for us to leverage its wisdom to develop better leaders. To apply the teaching to leadership development, Sun Tzu might be restated as follows……
“If you know your employees and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred challenges.”
The wisdom is simple. When leaders take the time and make the effort to understand themselves and their employees, they set everyone up for absolute success. As with any other business resource, results are achieved when the right combination of attributes are deployed. However, unlike material resources, human attributes are a unique mix of personal traits, skills, and expertise. To create the best possible combination, we have to understand the components that make up each attribute. That’s where successful leaders elevate themselves by making it their business to understand the complexities of each individual and operate within that framework to optimize employee efforts. Per Sun Tzu [restated], if you know yourself but not your employees, for every desired result you achieve, you will also experience a failure. That means you only get it right 50% of the time, which only gets us halfway there. Let’s look at the other half of the equation….know yourself.
Self-awareness. The most significant factor in a leader’s ability to motivate, inspire, and optimize the efforts of everyone on their team. When leaders understand themselves at their core, they gain what I like to call an active self-consciousness. These leaders know how their personal preferences and perspectives play into their preferred leadership style. They understand their needs both in and out of the office, and can proactively anticipate and mitigate against actions and reactions that compromise the effectiveness of their leadership. As noted in the preceding paragraph, this is still only half of the equation. Knowing your employees but not yourself, will result in failure as often as it does in victory. I believe there are similar odds in flipping a coin, which is why we need to understand how to achieve both sides of the equation.
Basic conversation and assessment tools are the short answer to how we complete the equation. A good starting point for knowing your employees is simple, old-fashioned, conversation. After you connect with employees on a personal level and establish a foundation of trust, assessment tools like the one mentioned below, can give you a deeper understanding of the components that drive the employee’s goals, work style, and needs. Knowing yourself may appear to be the easier task since most of us can quickly articulate our goals and predict our reaction to almost any situation. What we lack, however, is a deeper knowledge of our needs, which is mandatory for consistency in leadership. Professional assessment tools utilizing comprehensive analyses, such as The Birkman Method®, are the best way I know to gain pivotal knowledge about yourself and your employees. The right assessment tool, can become a powerful asset for personal awareness and professional growth. When it is used as a platform for team building, it promotes a common language and strengthens working relationships across the team.
Much like war, leadership is challenging on a personal and professional level. Success is measured by the leader’s ability to achieve a desired outcome with limited resources. Understanding the components that drive our goals, work style, and needs might set us apart from an average leader, but combining that knowledge with a deep understanding of the same for our employees, elevates us to the Sun Tzu level. The place where leaders have no fear.