| one of the most important principles un-derlying the
conduct of war has to be pro-activeness.
this is aptly captured by the following saying by sun tzi:
"in the conduct of war, one must not rely on the enemy's
failure to come, but on one's readiness to engage him;
one must not rely on the enemy's failure to attack, but on
one's ability to build an in-vincible defence.
in war, as appropriately pointed out by sun tzi, one
cannot rely on the failure of the enemy to attack us.
instead, one must be ever ready to take on the enemy. in
addi-tion, the defence must be so strong that the enemy
would not even dare to contemplate an attack. this
proactiveness is thus not on-ly in defence, but in offence
as well. this is a principle that is well understood by any
military commander. by being proactive, he is able not only
to gain the initiative, but will also have ample time and
opportunity to deal with the enemy. on the other hand, if
he is placed on the defensive, he is unlikely to come up
with effective strategies. in fact, he will be under severe
pressure, resulting in tension and even disunity within his
while proactiveness is well understood in military
warfare, it tends to be easily over-looked in the context of
business. more of-ten than not, many companies tend to
adopt a "follower" strategy. to begin with, they hope that
by following, they can reduce the risks involved. at the
same time, they can copy the successful strategy of the
leader and avoid his mistakes. there is nothing wrong with
adopting a follower strategy, provided one chooses the right
the significance of the above quotation by sun tzi would
be better understood in terms of its applications. let me
illustrate by posing a question. when you are num-ber two
or three in your line of business (whether it is in terms of
market share, profitability, quality standing, etc.), what
would you like to be? i am sure many readers would have
very little problem answering the question -- we all want to
be number one!
now, if you are now ranked number one, what would be your
goal or objective? this is where i often get very
interesting answers. typically, i would get the follo-wing
answers from executives around the world:
1. defend the number one position.
2. protect the number one position (whe-ther this is in
terms of profits, market share or some other criteria).
3. guard against the competitors.
4. maintain the leadership position.
5. sustain the number one position.
6. try to remain as number one.
7. stay number one.
now if you happen to hold one of the above responses, let
me say that you are only half-right. by saying half-right,
i mean you are half wrong! this is because all the above
answers are passive
, defensive and reactive responses! in
actual fact, being number one, you are effectively the
leader. as a leader, your main role is to lead.
un-fortunately, if you have a passive, defensive and
reactive mindset, you are likely to end up following
instead. this effectively vio-lates the principle of
proactiveness as advo-cated by sun tzi.
what then should the appropriate answer be? of course, in
war, we can destroy our enemies. in business, however, we
do not go about destroying our competitors. this would
project the company as very ruthless and without moral
principles. however, while we do not go about destroying
our business competitors, it does not mean that they do not
wish that we are out-of-business. without doubt, many
companies wish that there are fewer and weaker com-petitors
around. in this way, they would not have to work so hard
for their market shares and profits!
a more appropriate stance would be for the leader to
distance itself from the com-petitors. note that the key
phrase is to dis-tance from one's competitors, not from
one's own followers! by distancing itself from the rest of
the field, it would be harder and harder for the competitors
to catch up. in fact, if the gap becomes too big, the
com-petitors may even give up chasing! more importantly,
the concept of distancing can be applied to a company which
is not in the number one position. for example, if the
company is in the number two position, its goal would be to
catch up and overtake the leader. however, it is equally
important that it distances itself from the rest of the
competitors. in this way, it is assured of the runner-up
position while going for the champion!
interestingly, there are several reasons why it is so
important to distance oneself from the rest. let me
illustrate through the game of basketball. when the score
is 62 to 60, 64 to 62, 66 to 64, and so on (that is, the
difference between the two teams is only two points apart),
what would your answers be to the following questions:
1. which team do you think will be under greater stress?
2. which team is more willing to take risks?
3. which team will be afraid of making mistakes?
4. which team is likely to be more innovative and
think of the answers carefully. not sur-prisingly, many
of you will say that the team that is behind by only two
points is likely to be more willing to take risks and to
inno-vate. conversely, the team that is margi-nally ahead
is more afraid to make mistakes, is less willing to take
risks, and is under more stress and tension! the logic is
very simple! the guy behind is too close for comfort! as a
result, the team that is lea-ding is forced to take a more
conservative posture to defend its position.
this is where the irony lies. to be a
lea-der, there is a
need to continue to innovate and be creative. this implies
the necessity to take risks and the ability to tolerate
mis-takes. only then can the people in the orga-nisation be
willing to experiment, develop new ideas and concepts. all
these can flou-rish much better if the organisation has
enough "capital" and "buffer" to do so. this is where
distancing becomes so crucial. it allows the leading
company to have suffi-cient breathing space to develop new
ideas and innovations, and accomplish them with minimal
tension and stress. it is such a very simple, yet powerful
concept that only the enlightened companies are able to
(the writer is professor of business policy; dean, faculty
of business administration; director, graduate school of
business national university of singapore & a resource
panellist of sph's chinese newspapers.)