My boss, Sir John Hegarty, first drew it to my attention. Why, he asked, do so many business leaders and managers read Sun Tzu's The Art of War? Why is an ancient Chinese military textbook so often cited as one of the most influential primers for contemporary corporate strategy? Why are the languages of business and battle so similar?
Business is all about competition, campaigns and conflicts. We plan offensives, assaults and attacks. We're going into battle, girding our loins, putting boots on the ground. We're employing guerrilla tactics. We're identifying targets and taking aim. We're looking for quick wins, easy wins, win-wins. We're setting up war rooms, playing war games, going on the warpath. We've got to defend our turf. Let's blitz this. We've completed the reconnaissance. We've got the strategic howitzers out. We're addressing the troops. We're giving them their marching orders. We're launching the campaign with shock and awe. It's a full frontal assault, a heavy tonnage media bombardment starting in the Lake Tahoe area. We're going over the top...
We are drawn to analogies between commerce and combat with good reason. The word 'strategy' itself derives from the Greek for 'general'. Military metaphors suggest we can plan for success and that the business world can be ordered, structured and comprehensible. They create a sense of urgency, passion and purpose. They indicate discipline and reinforce hierarchy.
Nonetheless, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with all this martial language. Sun Tzu famously stated that 'all warfare is based on deception'. That may be so. But in the era of transparency is it helpful to characterize commerce as deceit? Surely army analogies are somewhat anachronistic in the age of fluid partnerships and constant collaborations; at a time when we are seeking to demonstrate the social value of business; in a culture that yearns for sustainability, that wants to leave the planet better than it found it.
I also suspect that the framing of business as war betrays a fundamentally masculine perspective. Dr Johnson remarked that 'every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier'. Are all these military metaphors acting as balm for bruised male egos?
Perhaps my greatest concern with the martial vocabulary is that it constrains our ability to attract, develop and retain the brightest and best young talent.
It's perfectly possible that previous generations embarked on their careers excited by the whiff of corporate cordite. They may have dreamed of workplace wars and boardroom battles. Indeed, when I began my first proper job in the '80s, there was quite an aggressive edge to business life. Suits were worn like armor, phones were carried like weapons, cars were displayed like trophies. We were driven, intense, focused. Careers were a serious business.
But I sense that the youth of today and the talent of tomorrow want different things from the world of work. They want balanced lives and a supportive culture, not obsessive commitment and unrelenting competition. They want fluidity and flexibility, not hierarchy and structure. They want to create, to inspire, to learn, to grow. They want to add value, not destroy it. They value values.
For this generation combat comparisons neither motivate nor inspire; military metaphors seem archaic, primitive, irrelevant.
I'm convinced that language is critically important. It frames the way we engage with life. It articulates how we feel about the world. If our understanding of business is evolving, then our business language should evolve too. If we think that commerce should create social as well as economic good, then we should be rewriting the corporate dictionary to reflect this.
Business needs a new vocabulary, one that talks of the positive power of commerce to change lives and enrich communities. Business needs a Lexicon of Love.
This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite, BBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. The topic, 'Does business need a new language of love?' will be explored at the People Innovation Gathering on October 28, 2014 in New York. To see all posts in the series, visit here.