Tag Archives: Sun-tzu

Burning Your Ships

Removing the option to go back: a key lesson for the innovative leader from Sun-tzu’s The Art of War.Statue of Liberty

[The Skillful Warrior] leads his men into battle
Like a man
Climbing a height
And kicking away the ladder;
He leads them
Deep into the territory
Of the feudal lords
And releases the trigger.
He burns his boats,
He breaks his pots…
– Sun-tzu  [1]

One fall evening in 2010 my wife Melissa and I were sitting around our kitchen table talking about our hopes for the future. At the time we were living in Fresno, California,  the city where we both grew up, moved away from, and then moved back to to get married. This was the place where we began our lives as individuals and it was the place we had decided to start our lives in marriage.

During those first couple of years after our wedding we found ourselves in good jobs, buying our first house, founding my first company (any entrepreneur’s spouse should be considered an honorary cofounder), and completing degrees at the university. We even adopted an american bulldog named Milly from the dog shelter. She was an exceptionally large and brawny dog, but nothing if not exceptionally sweet. It was probably the shock from the unexpected death of Milly that woke us up to the idea that we wanted to chart a different course for our early years in marriage. And charting this new direction was the topic of conversation at the kitchen table that evening.

Melissa had been reading the The Oz Principle, a book about personal accountability, and had recently shared a passage telling a story attributed to Alexander the Great:

When Alexander’s army reached the coast of what is now called India, he ordered his men to burn their ships. When the men hesitated at such a shocking order, Alexander responded, ‘We’re either going home in their ships or we’re not going home at all.’
-Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman  [2]

It was the story of Alexander eliminating any option of retreat that profoundly influenced our decision to pursue our happiness by deliberately burning our own ships. With the belief that happiness for us was to be found exploring and learning about the world together we decided, right there at the table, to move. By renting out our house soon after this talk we took our first step to remove any option to stay put. The next steps were telling our employers that we planned to leave in the near future and to also preemptively commit to impart our cars to family members for after the move. Our final big step and deliberate action was selling our ownership interest in my first startup the spring of 2011. During this time of burning ships there was always uncertainty about the specific destination, but we trusted that things would work out if we continued solidifying our commitment to our growth as a couple.

Declaring our intent was the first step in a series of actions that eventually lead us to our new home in the Boston area. Though, I believe that it was our first trip to New York on Thanksgiving of 2011 that helped me to articulate the power of the story of Alexander burning his ships. Seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time on this trip opened my eyes to the courageous journey that so many immigrants undertook by leaving their homes behind to come to the United States. Standing there, both humbled and inspired, I shared in the view that for many was their first sight of their new country and home.

During a recent trip back to New York I read Sun-tzu’s instruction in The Art of War to burn an army’s boats and break their pots in order to remove any option of retreat. This passage inspired me to share the first time I had learned this lesson here in the Work of Start.

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Sun-tzu (Sunzi); translated with an introduction and commentary by John Minford. The Art of War(New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 77-78
2. Connors, Roger, Tom Smith, and Craig R. Hickman. The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability. Rev. ed. (New York: Portfolio, 2010), 37.

The Ground Worth Struggling For

Finding that key competitive position: a great lesson for the innovative leader from Sun-tzu’s The Art of War.City of New York Public Library Lion

When the ground
Offers advantage
To either side,
That is
Strategic ground.
– Sun-tzu  [1]

A few hours before my train back to Boston departed from New York’s Penn Station, I stopped by the public library for the chance to reflect at the end of a demanding business trip. There was a strong pull for me to the familiar lions who guard the entrance to New York Public Library Schwarzman building now and for the past 100 years. [2] These silent guardians sat as reminders of one my favorite thinking places in Boston, the public library that also has lions (please see A Storied History), lying couchant, protecting the thoughtful.

This trip to New York is one of the many I will have to make in my work to try and develop a business around innovation in the book publishing space. My work for an early stage startup provides the privilege of seeing raw innovation morph into something valuable to the world– this is the intersection where scientific experiment meets practicality during the evolution of a business.

I sat there quietly in the library’s grand reading room making follow-up notes about the potential strategic partners and customers I had met on the trip. During this time a realization began to form about strategy based on a lesson from Sun-tzu regarding the different types of ground in which to do battle in The Art of War. Sun-tzu’s instruction tells us that strategic ground is “[l]eternally, ground worth struggling for…” as translated by John Minford. That being said, it has been my great surprise as an entrepreneur how challenging the act of identifying a key strategic position can be that is both advantageous and accessible for a developing business. Accordingly, it is my belief that great entrepreneurs are effective because they have the capacity to abstain from seemingly strategic opportunities that are not yet accessible to a new business.

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Sun-tzu (Sunzi); translated with an introduction and commentary by John Minford. The Art of War (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 268.
2. Acquired from New York Public Library Website – NYPL.org

Virtues of Leadership in Innovation

Seeking wisdom first: one of the the many lessons Sun-tzu’s The Art of War offers an innovative leader.

Statue of Charlemagne with guards

Command is

– Sun-tzu  [1]

On a recent trip to France I was reading The Art of War and during a brief wait at the Charles de Gaulle airport I came to Sun-tzu’s list of characteristics required for effective command. This passage stayed with me throughout the trip and upon seeing the statue of Charlemagne in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral I was struck by the power of Sun-tzu’s insight. What had the most impact on me was not, in regards to effective leadership and command, the rendering of Charlemagne looking ahead into the distance, but the impression left by the vigilant and fearsome guards guiding the emperor on horseback. This visual created a lasting metaphor of leadership in my mind with respect to innovation—to effectively manage a team which is innovating requires a leader, first and foremost, to be wise and thoughtful, because the reins of the horse driving an innovative process are not held by a single person at the top.

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Sun-tzu (Sunzi); translated with an introduction and commentary by John Minford. The Art of War (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 106.