Leadership lessons from Dale Carnegie and Sun Tzu

Sept. 9, 2020
The Art of War and How to Win Friends and Influence People are, at their core, similar takes on the essential goals of leadership.

If you’ve worked in Corporate America, you know management is always pushing a new leadership book. Everyone from Jack Welch to Jack Donaghy seems to have discovered the secret to team building, coaching, and employee engagement – and wants to sell it to you in bulk! But before diving into the next flavor-of-the-month, why not save a few bucks with two classics?

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People explore the fundamentals of human nature and how to harness it. Such insights are invaluable for achieving culture change, and likewise are essential to Reliability implementations. Not only have they passed the test of time (Sun Tzu died in 496 BC), but both are widely available for free online!

You can be fairly certain that any overlap between how-to manuals on war and making friends is about as close as we can get to objective “truth” when it comes to human nature. As it turns out, both luminaries were of a like mind on several of their major contentions.

Sun Tzu writes that leaders with moral cause conveyed as such will inspire men and women to follow them, even if it means risking their lives, “regardless of their doubts, undismayed by any danger”. Mr. Carnegie expresses, though far less dramatically, the same basic sentiment: “people will most often respond well when they desire to do the behavior put forth. If we want to influence people and become effective leaders, we must learn to frame our desires in terms of others' desires.”

Both agree that in order to be successful, a leader must instill in his or her team a personal, internal desire to achieve a given objective for its own sake. In other words, carrots and sticks alone won’t cut it. You have to make people want the change for themselves. Where they disagree, one finds an interesting subject for further consideration. Sun Tzu views morality to be what ultimately motivates people, while Dale Carnegie thinks it’s self-interest. Who’s right? A good leader will likely meditate on that question.

Team building is another great example where comparing and contrasting the two authors provides much food for thought. Sun Tzu wrote, “if soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, then they will be practically useless.” This is completely in line with Carnegie, who was an unwavering advocate of positive reinforcement. Both philosophies recommend handling a newly formed team the in same way: with praise, a delicate hand, and by avoiding confrontation.

But Sun Tzu doesn’t see it that way for long. “If when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless,” he wrote. Sun Tzu says start positive then enforce strict discipline with swift and fair punishment. Carnegie says start positive and stay that way. Both are sound though opposing takes on how to best balance this classic dichotomy.

The Art of War and How to Win Friends and Influence People are, at their core, similar takes on the essential goals of leadership. At heart, the question is how to galvanize your troops – whether literal troops or not – effectively and efficiently. That means getting buy-in so that ideas are implemented as intended and quality feedback works its way up from the front lines. Ideally this means less time spent supervising and more time focusing on program development. These two classics have been around for a long time, which is a testament to their sound advice. Give them a try before diving into your next management-recommended page turner!

Download The Art of War from Project Gutenberg

Download How to Win Friends and Influence People from PDF Drive

About the Author

Alex Ferrari

Alex Ferrari, CMRP, is a Maintenance Manager of a specialty cosmetics manufacturer in Charlotte, NC. He has worked in the chemical and nuclear industries both in the US and abroad in Argentina. As a blogger and as a maintenance professional, Alex aims to explore the challenges faced by small and mid-sized facilities without the budget for by-the-book reliability programs.

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