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While previous articles have addressed dominating a market, initiating a strategy and executing with speed, all using the precepts of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” this column will use the same source to identify the leadership attributes necessary to win a protracted war of attrition.

On the very first page of “The Art of War,” the author writes that “war is a matter of vital importance,” and as such, “it is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” Sun Tzu goes on to identify five fundamental factors that need to be appraised and included in that list of essentials is the element of command.

A page later, the author of “The Thirteen Chapters,” writes that:

“By command I mean the general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage and strictness.”

Dealers interested in successfully surviving an economic downturn should indeed seek to exhibit as many of these leadership attributes as is humanly possible.

By wisdom, it was felt that a general (read: dealer) should be able to deduce changing circumstances and to act expeditiously. As commodity prices started their precipitous decline 2 years ago, was a coherent strategy developed based on the dealership’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Were changes made in valuing trade-ins or plans initiated for eliminating used equipment? Were order takers replaced or at least encouraged to change their slovenly work habits? Was the emphasis on market share replaced with a focus on the dealership absorption rate? Were new equipment orders minimized while a program for purging aged equipment maximized?

According to Confucius, there are three methods from which we may learn wisdom: “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Dealers who have been around for the last 40 years should be able to learn from the previous downturns while reflecting on those activities that have worked for them as well as other successful dealerships.

“Many dealers retain sales personnel, not because they’re good, but because it’s difficult to replace them…”

The second and third leadership attributes that Sun Tzu identified in a successful general were sincerity and humanity. Whether a coach, conductor, general or dealer, their primary responsibility is to instill trust and confidence in the troops who are being led. To do so requires an ongoing display of character by leading with action and not just words. Or, as Chang Yu has written while commenting on “The Art of War:”

“When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.”

Communications need to be followed with actions that facilitate the desired outcome. Talking about customer satisfaction and then rarely meeting with customers does not send a meaningful message. Talking about product support and then continually recognizing and rewarding order takers is not a consistent message. Dealers need to respect their employees and their competitors as well as their end users. They need to stress honesty and integrity in their message as well as their deeds. Dealers need to not only talk the talk, but they also need to walk the walk.

The fourth leadership attribute that a dealer should possess is courage. Courage will enable the dealer to take advantage of opportunities by acting decisively and with dispatch. Sagacious plans obviate indecision and dawdling. Or as Plutarch wrote in “The Rise and Fall of Athens:”

“There is no doubt that courage is the foundation of victory.”

The final attribute that Sun Tzu recognized as an essential leadership trait is that of strictness. Discipline is an integral component of carrying out any dealership sales strategy. But even more important than strictness or discipline is the ability to get the right people in the right seat on the bus while simultaneously purging all of the wrong people off that bus. Or as Sun Tzu writes:

“When the general is morally weak and his discipline not strict, when his instructions and guidance are not enlightened, when there are no consistent rules to guide the officers and men and when the formations are slovenly, the army is in disorder.”

Far too many dealers retain sales personnel not because of how good they are but because of how difficult it is to replace them. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy that begets mediocrity. As times get tough, the tough need to get going. Leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of each of their employees and what motivates or demotivates each employee. They reward the positive and eliminate the negative. But they do so honestly and openly. And, as the author of “The Art of War” has written:

“Thus, command them with civility and imbue them uniformly with martial ardor and it may be said that victory is certain.”