I stumbled on an article mentioning how Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, bought each of his employees a copy of The Art of War immediately after meeting with Mark Zuckerberg many months back. I was surprised to see that this nugget could be traced back to a Forbes article from earlier this year. The articles state that “Chapter 6 in the Art of War specifically addresses the need to attack an enemy where and when he displays weakness” and draws a connection to how the Snapchat leadership wants to take on Facebook rather than play nice with them. I respect Spiegel for not bowing down to Facebook and Snapchat has its place as a product, but does the fact that Spiegel bought a 2500 year old book on war really make him seem that edgy or badass? This is nothing new; The Art of War has been referenced in every movie and book about cut-throat business for decades and talking about it was trite when I was still cool (I peaked around 2003).
If you have not read The Art of War then I suggest going through it over your next cup of coffee. It is widely available online and has some interesting lessons that apply to many competitive situations. Can we please, however, stop pretending that it is the book every CEO should have on his desk as the go-to reference for strategy? It is tempting to read the book as a metaphor for modern day business, but Sun Tzu was a general writing for generals. When he states that ‘[the fifth use of fire] is to hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy’ he is literally telling you to set your enemies on fire so that they burn to death. I know that successful CEOs can exhibit sociopathic tendencies, but where do we draw the line? Is undercutting a new competitor to defend market share really analogous laying siege to a city and indiscriminately starving innocents in an act of ancient war?
I don’t have a major gripe with cut throat tactics in competitive industries and I don’t make a practice of backing off due to pressure from those with more power or money than myself. I respect being tough in business and I know that behind the veil of disappearing, goofy selfies lies real money with major investor interests. I take fiduciary responsibility very seriously. I also have great friends who served in the military and I recognize that warfare is often a necessity, but enough is enough.
We need to stop taking business advice from people whose goal was to kill people as efficiently as possible and The Art of War should not be the first book you give your employees. If you want to emulate hardline managers, read Jack Welch. If you want a role model for how to be a successful business person but still be a good human being then look up to Warren Buffet. If you want to model yourself and your career off arrogant 20 something’s with a good idea and a decent product, then that is your choice and I wish you luck. My choice is to work with good people doing honest work. There are a lot of down to earth leaders that are trying to make the world a better place, and they should and will profit from that. I’d like a boat. I want a nice house on the beach. I plan on playing golf at the best courses in the world, but I want my foursome to be comprised of people who hold as heroes the best humanity has to offer, not those willing to succeed at all costs. But if you want to base your career off The Art Of War, then take Sun Tzu’s lessons to heart. When you are building your time-killing iOS app for college kids, never forget this important lesson that surely applies to your social media marketing strategy: “Moor your craft higher up than the enemy, and facing the sun. Do not move up-stream to meet the enemy. So much for river warfare"