The Art of Strategy and the Sun Tzu Way

Warriors Are Not the Only Ones Who Need a Plan of Attack

While you can’t deny the value of a higher education, some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs have been college dropouts. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Steve Wozniak top the list. Also on this roster is multimil­lionaire Gary Gagliardi (gal-YAR-dee). It wasn’t a brilliant invention or building a computer in his garage that shifted the aimless young man (“I held four jobs in four years and had been fired from a couple of them”) into high gear: It was a birthday present from his sister.

Unwrapping The Art of War, a book by the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, he read what leaders around the world have read for nearly 2500 years. The 13 chapters are considered the source book and foundation for all modern military and business strategy. It was one of only five books preserved by the first Chinese Emperor and was closely followed by Napoleon (other than at Waterloo, Gagliardi notes wryly). His own battle was in the marketplace: “I was in sales and saw immediately how Sun Tzu’s ideas could be applied to mistakes I was making.” As an employee of Bic Pen, then of Tandy Corporation, Gagliardi began applying Sun Tzu’s specific method of addressing challenges—what he calls the ‘Listen-Aim-Move-Claim cycle’. As he did, his fortunes began to change. Using the ancient principles and the computer savvy he’d gleaned from college courses he did attend, Gagliardi founded FourGen, an accounting soft­ware company. “I had to communicate my understanding of principles in The Art of War to our salespeople, most of whom had a difficult time adapting them from a military context to the business environment. So, I did my first adap­tation, Sun Tzu, The Art of Sales, for in-house use.”

The book helped put the company onto the INC. 500 list of fastest-growing companies, and FourGen sales teams enthusiastically shared copies with customers like AT&T, GE, and Motorola, who then invited Gagliardi to keynote conferences. “As proponents of Sun Tzu’s strategic principles, we enjoyed positive publicity,” states the former CEO. “PC Week did a whole section about our use of Sun Tzu’s philosophy in business. His influence was woven deeply into the nature of our company; we built our software an entirely different way so that it was easy to change as needs evolved. We called this concept ‘modifiability by design.’ It was the crux of our success and was based directly on Sun Tzu’s principles.”

Sometimes called “the son of Sun Tzu” or “Software Samurai,” Gagliardi is certainly a master marketer. His Art of War Plus books on strategy adapt the concepts to business, love, parenting and many other subjects, including, most recently, Strategy Against Terror. In all versions, Gagliardi provides parallel text, printing Sun Tzu’s words on the left and his interpretation on the right, so readers can see the source material. Unhappy with contradictions and con­flicts in other English translations of the work (“ten different English translations didn’t agree with one another, and nearly all were internally inconsistent,” he complains), Gagliardi studied The Art of War straight from the source, translating the work directly from the Chinese. Languages have always been his hobby (he still studies ancient Greek and can read French, Spanish and German); three years spent studying Japanese gave him an understanding of the Kanji character set that is shared with Chinese. “I discovered that ancient Chinese is a language unto itself, written more conceptually (or poetically, as some prefer) than any modern spoken language. It’s really based on equations.” Fortunately, Gagliardi also has some background in mathematics and physics and immediately saw the similarities between The Art of War and classical Greek mathematics, “especially Euclid.”

Beginning with the assumption that Sun Tzu didn’t contradict himself, Gagliardi applied not only his linguistic talents but his experience of working successfully with the principles to produce what he feels is an authentic render­ing of the text. “I also had the advantage of working from a complete compilation of various textual traditions created by the University of Taipei on this subject, so I had a more complete source document than many other English translators.” Gagliardi has also worked on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and its ‘equations’ and may release it as an “An­cient Chinese Revealed” version of The Art of War. Sun Tzu’s book teaches the science of strategy, known in Chinese as bing-fa, which literally means ‘martial arts.’ “Bing-fa is a sophisticated system of advancing your position to make success inevitable. The beauty of this system is that it makes winning easy while avoiding conflict. The lessons in The Art of War are not vague aphorisms, as they are usually translated,” he emphasizes. “This system has survived for 2,500 years because it is detailed, complete, and it works!”

Historically known as Sun Wu (544-496 BCE), Sun Tzu (“Master Sun” in Chinese) grew up in a family of warriors during a period of great instability, when barbaric warring factions divided China. He systematically analyzed the his­tory of war to discover what worked and why, something no warrior had done before. He found that many assump­tions about what worked in competition were wrong,notably, that the size and wealth of an army had nothing to do with its force and power. On the basis of this work, Sun Tzu was hired as a general by the kingdom of Wu, which he turned into the leading power in China within a decade. He is thought to have written the original text shortly before 510 BCE. After his death, his system was kept alive by descendants and led directly to the unification of China, to the virtual elimination of war in the area, and to the creation of the most stable empire in history.

That Gagliardi would encounter the masterful military strategist was almost a given: he was born on a military base in Fairbanks, Alaska; both his parents were in the Army Air Corps (his father was a decorated hero who survived the death march of Bataan; his mother was an officer) and the family moved frequently. Though he has not served in the military, his expertise is sought and used by both political parties (“most politicians are poor strategists”), as well as by the world’s biggest companies, including IBM, 3M and Kraft. He is a frequent guest on numerous radio talk shows, promoting his message with enthusiasm and finely honed debating skills. His pleasant, polished voice keeps listeners rapt; but paying attention is crucial anyway, since he presents information and arguments at high speeds. “Everyone who has mastered this system of strategy has gone on to be successful, which is why it is taught in all mili­tary academies and most leading business schools,” says Gagliardi, who retired at 45 to found the Science of Strategy Institute, an international organization dedicated to teaching the principles of Sun Tzu.

According to Gagliardi, the central message in The Art of War is not about war, weapons or troop formations, but is an abstraction of how competitive systems work. He considers Darwin’s ‘Survival’ the closest work to the great text, asserting that competition is innate to the human condition. “Competitive forces shape every part of your life. In your career, you compete for money, recognition, and promotion. In your personal life, you compete for romantic at­tention, affection, and recognition. As a parent, you compete with society’s influences in teaching your children. Though the rules of strategy were forged under the fierce competition of war, its rules apply to business, politics and romance.” While our instinctual reaction to threat is the “fight or flight” reflex, Sun Tzu taught that running away from challenges or getting into meaningless conflict both lead to disaster. “Learning strategy can help you be suc­cessful no matter what your goal is,” coaches Gagliardi, who thinks strategic talents are natural skills we’re born knowing, that employing them is different than using manipulative tactics, and that where we end up in life is largely determined by our skill in competition.

Which leads us back to Bill. “Microsoft is the most successful practitioner of this strategy in the world today,” states Gagliardi, mentioning that Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the second richest man in the world, is also a big proponent of Sun Tzu’s principles, which are based on five tenets: philosophy, ground, climate, leadership and methods. And these lead us to Gagliardi’s recent work; The Art of War Plus Strategy Against Terror. “The War on Terror is a battle of the ideal of freedom against the ideal of moral totalitarianism,” he writes. “Terrorists are not driven by anti-American philosophy. Their philosophy is much older than the existence of the United States. The first ‘fundamental­ist’ Islamic radicals were the Karjarites who killed Ali, the fourth caliph in the eighth century. Since then, these movements have operated more or less continually in the Islamic world and have nothing to do with America or im­perialism; these movements are about power, not religion.”

Regarding Ground, traditionally associated with location and economics, Gagliardi believes “terrorists figured out that bringing their tactics to the West affords them free publicity—their chosen battleground is the television screen and the newspaper front page.” A battleground is connected to the climate, which includes the realm of controllable change: weather, social, cultural and business changes. “Climate shifts in the battleground bring opposing philoso­phies into actual conflict. The movement toward democracy in the Middle East makes the divide between the terror­ists and the common people completely clear. In opposing democracy, the terrorists are making their goal of ruling in the name of God completely clear to everyone in a region historically torn by many groups who have claimed the ‘one true version of Islam’,” continues Gagliardi. Leadership is semi-self-explanatory, though the author has plenty to say on the topic. “Leaders need to be very careful what visions they give people; vision and actions have costs.” And, as someone who has counseled both sides of the political aisle, he is willing to say that “America is a superpower with A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder).” Methods are the means used to secure victory, and must conform to the organi­zation’s core philosophy.

Throughout the book, Gagliardi details his considerable understanding of methods and the other four tenets, ex­plaining how the War on Terror can be won. He offers a concise outline of each chapter, then breaks the text into spe­cifics, managing to convey the principles without purveying politics. He does feel that deployment of armed forces at this point is “like hiring a gorilla to do brain surgery—we’re using the wrong tool.” His conclusion presents The Ten Keys to Winning, nine of which he says are taken not just from Sun Tzu but from lessons taught by Peru and Algeria, countries that have been hit hard by and who have largely defeated terrorism within their own borders. Notably, the tenth key is economic freedom. In Gagliardi’s view, “The greatest accomplishment of the War on Terror will be to force the governments of the Islamic world to liberalize their economic policies. Secular democracy may or may not be compatible with Islam in its present form, but Malaysia has already proven that the Muslim world is ready for eco­nomic opportunity.

Five years ago, Gagliardi had the opportunity to apply the framework of classical strategy to a life or death battle in the form of a cancer diagnosis. Though he was successful in combating the disease, the 5’10”, 200-pound motiva­tional speaker was left without taste buds or salivary glands, causing him to swallow frequently. One thing he couldn’t swallow was witnessing other patients’ lack of strategic skills, which he felt was “literally costing people their lives in cancer treatments.” Since celebrating his five-year survival benchmark, Gagliardi has rededicated himself to teaching, and to putting family first. “As Sun Tzu teaches, everything starts with your philosophy. My philosophy is to put those with whom I have long-term relationships first. I have organized my life around that goal. As someone who built up a large company, I can tell you that that kind of success ends up taking control of your life. You are responsi­ble to so many people that you have no personal life. You cannot live your life for “society” because society is just an intellectual idea, something you create in your own head. It isn’t real. It doesn’t have a soul.”

On the horizon for Gagliardi, who lives with his wife near Seattle and, of course, enjoys playing chess, is a new book, The Golden Key to Strategy, which departs from the use of military terminology and presents Sun Tzu’s strate­gy in an entertaining, easily digestible form. “The idea of war turns off a lot of people who could potentially use these ideas,” he remarks. Gagliardi is also looking forward to an excursion to Thailand and is working on a project explain­ing how the ancient Greek of Christ’s words in the Gospel differs from our English translations (to see this work in progress, log onto Gagliardi’s blog: He is hopeful that God is on the side of freedom. “As a people, we believe in Divine Providence; both political parties argue back to the center of liberty,” he states. “Actually, Benjamin Franklin said it best: ‘Free people pursue their own dreams, (they do) not destroy others’.”


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