What’s The Value of Your Word?

Posted by & filed under Art of War for Small Business, Sun Tzu Blog.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an alarming and, I believe, growing trend. It’s the lack of follow through of too many people in doing something they say they’re going to do. I’ve not seen it in only a few isolated organizations, but certainly I’ve seen organizations without any accountability for lack of follow through. Claims like “I’ll have that for you Tuesday,” or “I’ll email that to you right after our call,” have no meaning.

Millennials get “dinged” for being a skeptical and un-trusting generation. I believe that when they look around and see a lack of accountability and follow through in honoring commitments by individuals and organizations around them, we must consider that in their lack of trust.  

It’s one thing for deadlines and commitments to slip because of unexpected occurrences, but for individuals and organizations for which this is a matter of course, it’s bad. Very bad. If it’s your practice to tell people in your professional or personal life that you will do something by a certain date and you don’t do it, your word has no value.

Think about that.

I had lunch with a colleague of many years recently and he and I discussed this phenomenon. “I suspect it’s due to a combination of many factors,” he said. I think he’s right. Rather than attempting to explore the why, except to say, from a high level, it occurs within an organization because it’s tolerated, let’s look at Sun Tzu’s perspective on follow through and the value of your word.

Sun Tzu on keeping our word

Sun Tzu said this in his classic, Art of War:

The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.

Huynh’s translation is only slightly different: wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage and discipline.

Those are five core characteristics of Sun Tzu’s leader. Of those, three directly apply to follow through and honoring commitments: sincerity, courage and strictness. Sincerity is honesty and the character of being genuine. Credibility is trustworthiness. Those who say they will do something but do not cannot be trusted. They aren’t regarded as genuine. And with good reason.

Courage is wrapped up in our ability to follow through and keep our words. It takes bravery and conviction to follow through on what we set out to do.

And finally, strictness and discipline are core to this. While Sun Tzu is concerned primarily with the strictness by which men are governed by the general, it would be unfathomable to him that a general would be a person without the highest degree of personal discipline in his life.

Act on Victories & Consolidate Resources

This passage below is one of the cardinal principles of The Art of War, particularly for small businesses and those in highly competitive markets. It’s important because it’s commonly forsaken:

Now, to win battles and capture lands and cities but to fail to consolidate these achievements is ominous and may be described as a waste of resources and time.

I like the translation of my friend, Thomas Huynh, here, because it’s clearly and severely worded:

If one gains victory in battle and is successful in attacks, but does not exploit those achievements, it is disastrous.

It’s been my experience that this passage gets to the heart of one of the single most costly and detrimental mistakes made in business. Because of shortsighted vision, changes in direction, and limited resources, small businesses in particular too often win victories great and small, but don’t fully leverage those opportunities. They don’t follow through. 

The good news is that those who do what they say they’re going to do stand out above and beyond everyone else. They are the folks known for their integrity, their ability to take action, and often their wisdom in the actions they take.

If you’re finding yourself stuck in your career or in your business, ask yourself, how well do you honor your commitments and follow through? I don’t think it’s possible to be successful if you don’t, and neither does Sun Tzu.


2 Responses to “What’s The Value of Your Word?”

  1. Thomas Huynh

    It’s a privilege to have you as a friend Becky. Follow through is so rare. However, no one is perfect but the idea is to have an overall reputation and character of reliability and professionalism. Mistakes will be made and things do fall through the cracks but it’s the manner as to which we sincerely try to correct the problem that we gain people’s trust, and dare I say, admiration. That’s why I admire Becky. She exudes professionalism and those who know her would do good to emulate her. Not saying that because she’s my friend. She’s my friend because she’s that way.

    • beckysheetz

      Many thanks, Thomas! This is not a popular idea–the one of following through and honoring your word. I think many would say that they do this, but in reality this characteristic is not as common as it should be. I value your friendship as well and your exceptional scholarship and contributions to our understanding of The Art of War. May we both be able to continue to do so for many years to come and may our paths cross many times as a result!


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