THE famous Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “The responsibility for a martial host of a million lies in one man. He is the trigger of its spirit.” The best historical example is probably the Battle of Issus, in which Alexander the Great faced an enormous army of Persians.
Alexander knew, however, that he didn’t have to defeat all the Persians to win; he could win by defeating only one, as long as that one was the enemy king. He therefore orchestrated a cavalry charge against King Darius who lost his nerve, turned his chariot, and fled from the battle, thus telling his entire army that he thought the day was lost.
When any general — or the chief executive officer of a modern corporation — shows that he does not know how to handle a crisis, the organization’s morale collapses quickly. Any insider or even outsider with training in organizational psychology, meanwhile, knows that it is all over for the military or business entity in question.
I first saw this phenomenon at IBM during the early 1990s, when its CEO blamed the company’s problems on “too many employees standing around the water coolers.” Whether true or not, this was hardly the root cause of the company’s declining performance and this statement painted a devastating picture of a leader who simply did not know what to do.
The statements and actions of General Motors’ executives are now painting an equally bleak picture. CEO Rick Wagoner’s “A Portrait of My Industry” (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6) shows that the company lacks the proactive leadership it needs to survive.