Illustration By Britt Spencer

The Art of War, the masterwork written by Sun Tzu (BC 544 – BC 496) in the mid-fifth century BC, has stood the test of time as a collection of strategies that when applied to various situations have proven to be successful over and over. Military and business leaders alike have used the wisdom in The Art of War to inspire and achieve personal and group goals. Personally, I have often used parts of Sun Tzu’s master work in my seminars covering both martial arts and turfgrass topics with equal reflection for over 30 years. The purpose of this article is to examine seven quotes from Sun Tzu that have direct correlation to the art of growing grass (or growing the people who grow the grass), especially high-quality golf turf. I began balancing my martial arts career with my turf career in the early 1980s when I was teaching martial arts classes at night for Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and attending turf classes under ABAC’s Dr. Eddie Seagle by day. Thirty-five years later I am still earning a living through the martial arts and the cultivation of high-quality turf grass. I hope these insights will help you improve your level of artistry and success within all of your endeavors.

Training is critical to success

“Victory usually goes to the army who has the better trained officers and men.” — Sun Tzu

What does this really mean for the modern superintendent? It means that success in the management of high-quality turfgrass is often dependent on the proper training of your senior staff such as assistant superintendents and supervisors as well as the foot soldiers of our industry, the entry-level greenkeepers. Sun Tzu is quietly reminding us that we cannot do everything ourselves that we will ultimately depend on our army (staff) to direct tactics and programs and actually accomplish the physical tasks required in a proper way to ensure success. For example, in the properly trained world, there should never be a scalped collar or a diesel mower filled with gasoline. This is perhaps the most direct of the quotes that we will examine today, but I believe that it is by design. This is the cornerstone that most of the other precepts are built. You must develop quality training and evaluation programs for each level of your staff in order to be successful in the golf industry. Think about some of the legendary turf managers of our time. They are all famous for training and producing high-quality personnel on an ongoing basis. Start with training the basics at the entry-level and then move onward through your tasks and tactics (agronomic plans) providing practice and noting performance. Remember that in this area practice does not make perfect but perfect practice leads to a deep level of mastery that, in time, leads to sustainable success. Knowing how is the beginning. Knowing why is the secret of success.

Many voices, one song

“He will win whose army is animated (driven) by the same spirit throughout its ranks.” — Sun Tzu

It is an easy thing to say that we are single minded as to our purpose, but it’s hard to live that truth on a daily basis. Scores of mission statements and vision statements whirl through the halls of business. But how many stick? How many golf operations understand from top to bottom why we are all here and what we need to accomplish through thousands of separate activities that will achieve the ultimate goal of a truly sustainable and profitable business? Sun Tzu is pointing toward a transparency and a clarity that is deep and yet simple in a connected family/work environment. I once visited a plant where they produced chewing gum. The combined vision and mission statement was, “We Make Great Gum,” and every employee knew how their job impacted the gum being great, right down to the sales team who found it easier to sell great gum over average gum. They owned the message because they lived it unforced and naturally every day. They were a family, an economic army working for a shared goal and fueled by the energy of even the newest member. We must make this a reality within the turf management operation as well. Great training fails when the staff is not motivated, so creating a shared sense why we need to be successful and what every one’s role is will create a synergy that is obvious to all who see it or hear of it.

Pick your battles

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” — Sun Tzu

When it comes to superintendents and egos, everyone knows that you need a healthy dose of confidence with an equal dose of gratitude to do this job well. However, Sun Tzu reminds us it is wise to pick your battles and be prepared to engage or not engage at all. In fact, he also recommends that if you cannot win, then do not engage but rather gain better understanding and continue to train for other objectives. Have you ever heard of a superintendent in the middle of a situation such as overseeding (to do it or not), converting greens to a new type of turf or some other controversial property issue that was about to choose to fight or not to fight? Sun Tzu is simply reminding us that every dog has his day and the best way to win is to be sure that it is a fight worth engaging and you have all of the intellectual and physical resources to guarantee success. Beware the temptation to overestimate your worth because you have been very successful. My mentor Palmer Maples Jr. once told me that you can get so gifted at solving problems that you eventually become the biggest problem because you fail to see priorities through the eyes of others. There are many facets to the processes and battles presented daily in the management of high-quality turfgrass, so be sure to pick your battles wisely and success and long tenure will be your reward.

A sense of timing is critical in life, career and business

“Quickness is the essence of war.” — Sun Tzu

Have you ever had regrets about the road not taken? Perhaps it was a job or relationship that seemed like it would be around forever, but suddenly the door closed and the opportunity was lost. Here Sun Tzu is giving us all the ultimate reminder that life, business and war move really fast, and you have to make decisions quickly to take advantage of opportunities and procrastination leads to ruin or at the very least deep regret. I write this article from Dallas, Texas, about 800 miles from my hometown of Indian Creek, Ga. I am only a few months removed from using this advice in my own career. I was offered my dream job as director of golf operations for TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Dallas at Las Colinas. It was an amazing opportunity, but I had to act. I packed what I would need through the AT&T Byron Nelson Classic, and I accepted the job, moved to Texas and lived a very different lifestyle while we secured the family and other details later. The experience has been the highlight of my career. Never wait too long to make things happen. Great opportunities by their very nature are rare so being aware of your goals and plans and up to date on your capabilities are all things that can help you know when to take that leap of faith for a chance to live your dreams. The technology of today with smart phones, apps and real-time reporting have made the windows (pardon the pun) of opportunity even smaller. See your vision clearly, plan your steps, define the actions required and act without hesitation nor regret. One of my favorite Sun Tzu quotes is the perfect way to close out this section: “Let your plans be as impenetrable as the night and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

“Never wait too long to make things happen. Great opportunities by their very nature are rare so being aware of your goals and plans and up to date on your capabilities are all things that can help you know when to take that leap of faith for a chance to live your dreams.”

Synergy defined is 1+1 = 3

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” — Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu is pointing out a long-known axiom that some people are seemingly blessed with success or born under a lucky star may not be true. The truth is simpler and deeper. Sun Tzu is speaking to the synergy created when strong positive habits are formed and practiced over and over. The idea is touched on by hundreds of positive thinking gurus and programs. For our purpose, it should be clear that the more you work toward the items you identify as critical and make the reality of your circumstances bend to your will, the better you will get at it. Getting amazing results and identifying more opportunities or even bigger accomplishments is largely the result of personal action that is divinely guided. You will begin to see opportunities that others bypass unknowingly. This synergy has been documented over and over. Most people get lost between strategy and tactics, and never seem to take the right action at the right time or some simply get tired of the fight and give up. You see we cannot change what we are willing to tolerate. So, by the very laws of nature, you must turn the art of seizing opportunities into a daily habit not a rare life event. If you do make the commitment, I promise the opportunities multiply just as Sun Tzu said. My office is covered with the irrefutable evidence that this is a timeless truth.

Always strive to be the wise general

“The reason that the wise general conquers the enemy whenever they move and that their achievements surpass ordinary men is foreknowledge.” — Sun Tzu

Now you may be wondering what is foreknowledge and why is it so important. First, let’s define foreknowledge as the combined accumulative knowledge from the beginning of a thing up to the present moment in time and its integration with other items of note that lead to unerring intuition. That can be a lot of information. The point is to be complete in your assessment of things so that mistakes or miscalculations are not possible. A basic example of foreknowledge would be a trusted recipe that has been handed down for generations. Each generation proving and guarding ingredients and methods to reach the desired results. Sun Tzu warns us to value firsthand experience above hearsay and ghosts, but gather the whole of the information and then prove its worth. This is the same logic we apply to the total aeration process for greens or other high-value turf. Our foreknowledge and research allow us to build a plan of action that is the result of our expanded search for truth about the situation presented to us. Before making an incorrect move, we test the action against proven foreknowledge to ensure success. It is also important to note that as your achievements surpass ordinary men, some people will stop clapping when you win or do something of note. Hold the course and take the high road trying to be aware, humble and stay prepared to justify your actions at all times. We are always being tested to see how well we have learned the lessons of our craft. The art of greenkeeping is a true blend of science and art. Because it requires a large number of people to share a vision or foreknowledge, it will always be a moving target that while difficult to hit, has many rewards for those who persevere and hit the target each day.

illustration: ArtSklad

Do not let the size of your current resources limit your aspirations

“Great results can be achieved through small forces.” — Sun Tzu

I saved this one for the last so it might resonate. It is often an advantage to prove your resourcefulness and skills with few resources in order to earn your way to bigger and better opportunities. Remember it is not where you start that matters when it comes to career. You must know where you are going to reach the ultimate success within the legacy of your career. Maximum effort, will and cleverness will be necessary to start at the bottom and end at the top of any endeavor. In Goju ryu Karate Do we have a saying, “everyone works, nothing is free and everyone starts at the bottom.” It also applies to turfgrass management. Dream big, work hard and never let the size of your budget limit your desire to achieve.

It has been a journey full of inspiration and simple answers to complex questions as we revealed some of Sun Tzu’s deepest wisdom as it relates to the art of growing turfgrass. The true depth of this wisdom is that everyone will take away a slightly different understanding of the text depending upon their level of experience or their need for understanding. I would encourage you reread the article after a few days, take a few side notes and pick one or two areas to put into your daily action plans. Do this for a few months and see if you notice the impact the strategies are having. Consider this exercise an investment in your future. May the tools you find help build the career that you have always wanted.

Anthony Williams, CGCS, is the director of golf course maintenance and landscaping at the Four Seasons Resort Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas. He’s a frequent GCI contributor.