Leadership and Enemies

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” –Sun Tzu (adapted)

Let me begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for Sun Tzu (The Art of War). Not only was he a brilliant strategist, he was also a brilliant teacher. BUT…every time I hear this quote in business, it gives me pause. Perhaps it is less about the quote and its original intent, and more about the way I hear it tossed about carelessly in offices, hallway conversations, and business circles around the globe.

Have we really become such political animals with our D.C.- style agendas that we would dare to adopt this way of thinking in business? Unlike in war, your first step should be to minimize your enemies…not by killing them, but by finding like agendas and working together. War is destructive, and this is especially true in business.

Let me be clear – I fully appreciate the war that businesses wage against their competitors, and I am not debating the merits of that. In fact, I relish in it, as we all should want to inflict as much “damage” on our competitors as possible. But that’s just the point – the cannons should always be pointed out…for if they are not, they can only inflict internal damage.

Back to the point…I am addressing the way I hear this quote most often used – as an internal business strategy for dealing with political opponents. I realize that making friends with all of your internal opponents is not feasible, as that is just the way of the world. Politics are everywhere, and they only thicken as you accumulate more responsibility. Perhaps I am being too literal here, but there is no way I would want an internal opponent closer than my friends. To me, this is simply unthinkable. Here’s why:

  1. Authenticity. I firmly believe that authenticity is a secret weapon. Most people are not comfortable just being themselves, even though to do so is seen, felt, and appreciated by all. Being an authentic leader is a core value of mine, and I am uncompromising on this issue. Pretending that an enemy is someone I want to be best buddies with flies in the face of authenticity, so I refuse to do it.
  2. Respect for my friends. If my friends see me making choices to place my enemies above them, they would take that as an affront to our friendship. As a result, we would likely not be friends for much longer. As friends, we have earned a certain amount of respect from one another, which must be treated accordingly, lest my friends become my enemies.
  3. Safety. As I see it, allowing my enemies closer proximity to me only means they will “stab” me sooner. I have learned this lesson time and time again. Getting too close to my opponents does nothing but give them more opportunity to distort and use things that I say (or that they make up) against me. No thanks.

Does this mean that you completely ignore your opponents as if they do not exist? Of course not! I am merely suggesting that you acknowledge them for what they are – your enemy. Don’t take it personally, and treat them accordingly…respectfully, but never disingenuously. For if you are disingenuous even once, your enemy is not the only one who is watching…everyone else is as well.

Courageous Leaders are not lured into compromising their core values for the sake of personal or political gain. Take the high road, believe in yourself, and don’t fall prey to those who seek to ensnare you in political maneuvers. Rather, pour your energy into being better than your opponents by demonstrating real results.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies…just close enough.

Lead. Courageously.

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