The War to End all Wars?…Or is War a Good Analogy for Business?

I was reflecting on the juxtaposition of the recent and rare palindromic Veteran’s Day 11-11-11, and the origin of that day, known as Armistice Day. On that day – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – hostilities in the First World War ended. The war was so brutal and costly that the day became a holiday in many countries around the world. It was also known as Remembrance Day.

We are presently working on creating a reading list for this website for veterans. I conceived of the idea from several sources. First, my experience in my Marine Corps career. Regular professional reading was an ongoing requirement. This is a link to the Commandant’s Reading List. Second, on my Linked-in account, there is space for books and book recommendations. Third, and finally, from a series for entrepreneurial education by the Kauffman Foundation called the Series on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

One of the foundational skills around which we plan our curriculum at the UConn Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities is business communications. I believe the entrepreneur’s ability to communicate precisely his/her plan to create value via a commercialization plan, a formal business plan, a 30-second elevator pitch, a 30-second youtube commercial, via social media or via a $50 advertisement in a local newspaper, or a 1-minute brief to an angel investor is the single most crucial skill. The ability to sell your value idea to everyone in the value landscape – customers, vendors, suppliers, investors, creditors, competitors – is the decisive competitive advantage for the entrepreneur. All things being equal, that is how one start-up distinguishes itself from every other start-up. The ability to communicate with the marketplace will make or break a start-up.

This recent article in INC Magazine Is War a Good Analogy for Business struck me as a profound misunderstanding of what Sun Tzu wrote in his timeless classic The Art of War. Sun Tzu believed that war was a failure of politics, that is, a failure of political communication to reach rational compromise. Rather, Sun Tzu believed in winning without fighting; he considered that the greatest accomplishment of the general. Less than victory without fighting was failure. Failure was the result of the general’s inability to correctly account for the five knowledges necessary to achieve victory: knowledge of self, knowledge of the enemy, knowledge of the people (nation), knowledge of the army, and knowledge of the terrain and weather. Anyone with military experience reading this will recognize the similarity to the acronym METT-TSL: Mission, Enemy, Troops, Terrain/weather – Time, Space, Logistics.

Master Sun understood one simple, ineluctable and timeless truth: wars are expensive. Wars cost money, and to quote the master “Avoid long wars. They deplete the treasury and exhaust the nation.” To offer a quote from a famous movie “I don’t like blood. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.”

Currently, a brief sojourn through popular literature and television show dozens of examples of endeavors now considered wars. There numerous reality tv shows, including Parking Wars, Cupcake Wars, Storage Wars, Food Wars, Insect Wars, and Whisker Wars, to name just a few. I submit that the current fascination with and mis-use of the concept of “war” as entertainment may be a pop cultural reason for the decline of entrepreneurship and value creation in this country. After a decade of two wars, people would rather be entertained by the spectacle of war, rather than create value. But this is Sun Tzu’s point – war is a failure to communicate. These reality tv shows create drama for entertainment purposes not from people communicating and compromising to work and live together – but rather from confrontation and zero-sum, winner-take-all destruction of the other. This is exactly what Sun Tzu meant when he wrote: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it. Perhaps the past decade of two wars has created an idea of war as entertainment, as spectacle, and desensitized our national consciousness to the pain and suffering and the true cost of war?

So as our nation just celebrated its 10th Veteran’s Day while at war, those of us who aspire to become entrepreneurs would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s observation: Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation. Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.

War destroys value; entrepreneurship creates value.