Sunzi, the game of go, and corporate governance

Interview with Korsak CHAIRASMISAK, Vice-President of the Thai group Charoen Pokphand (CP), President of the 7-

Eleven distribution groups in Thailand and of Lotus Shanghai

Interview conducted by Sophie Faure

Korsak CHAIRASMISAK received a degree in economic sciences form the University of Thammasat (Thailand) and first spent two years with Hoechst. He then joined the CP group, where he has climbed the corporate ladder rung by rung.

In 1989, CP purchased a 7-Eleven (convenience stores) license from an American group to develop the concept in Thailand. By 2003, they were running over 2,700 stores and employing nearly 30,000 people. Mr. Chairasmisak is the founder of the Thai Go Association and author of The Asian CEO in Action (Direct Media, 2003) in which he develops his principles and beliefs about leadership.

The game of go as a guide to corporate management: a lesson in Chinese-style efficiency

and responsibility.

A go tournament during a leadership seminar. What an original idea!

The game of go actually teaches essential lessons about what a strategy can be, and it can also teach a key lesson about leadership. We are now in the midst of a “Get together” seminar that brings junior and senior members of the company together so that they can come to understand each other better. We organize this type of seminar twice a year. And as you see, they are still playing go even though the tournament is over! I started this practice in our group a few years ago. Since then, over 1,500 people out of nearly 27,000 have continued playing go.

Why is it so important for executives and leaders of the 7-Eleven Group in Thailand to learn this game?

To understand all the reasons, we must first go back to part of the Asian heritage, the legacy of Sunzi and his short opus on the art of war. The weigi, or game of go, is based on these same principles. Above all, it is a particularly instructive game of strategy1 that has neither rules nor restrictions on movement. The game proceeds differently from chess, for not just a single battle is played out, but multiple fields of action emerge. The art of the game thus requires being able to consider the whole while simultaneously taking the specificities of each field of action into account.

Indeed, go is the only game that requires you to come up with a strategy that is both specific and global. It teaches us that everything is connected and has an impact on the long term, and it makes us aware of our adversary’s potential as well as the price we must pay for each gain. You must act according to a strategy and guide your life according to a policy. Maximize the potential of resources that, by principle, are limited.

The person who wants to win…loses, because you cannot win everything. The person who does not know how to lose knows not how to win either. The price of wanting to win is very high, because it distracts you from the ultimate goal. A failure is never serious. You must keep your mind under control and not let yourself think about winning.

Which does not mean accepting to lose. The true battle takes place within oneself, so if I lose, I can only blame myself, for I am responsible for my defeat. With this spirit in mind, organizations should use their limited resources to develop their own potential. Using resources to destroy opponents is an error that one should avoid. The philosophy here is diametrically opposed to that of chess. It urges you to take over territory, not to reach check and mate. It is your adversary who destroys himself, not you who defeat your adversary. Sunzi must have played go!

As for the flexibility of the game, it is huge. No computer has yet been able to defeat a person. Calculate the possibilities yourself; there are over 10768! It’s like a game of life that makes everyone continually go through the process of change. More than anything else, playing go is like practicing to deal with situational changes.



To learn the rules of the game of go, see

Business Digest – N.144 - September 2004 2


How do you apply these principles?

Why spend time, energy, and money fighting your enemy? It’s more important to build people up. They are the ones who will win the battle for you. The Emperor must have understood that 3000 years ago. But some companies now, as then, do not want to or cannot hear this message. The world has changed, and companies must still launch their revolution. Take human resources, for example. What is hidden behind this term? Aren’t they empty words? I

witnessed things that were far from honorable during the Asian crisis. And as far as I am concerned, the importance of people truly becomes apparent during times of crisis. Our company is in the business of service; it is the concept that

7-Eleven stores are based upon. Only a “happy” employee can supply a service. We therefore owe him or her warmth and enjoyment. Our management style is based on a profound awareness of what everyone needs at the deepest level—inner peace and a serene relationship with the outside world. Taoism teaches us not to oblige ourselves to do anything, nor to force ourselves. It is a lesson in a type of freedom.

Does efficiency go along with learning to be free?

In reality, one of the main lessons in the game of go is that change originates in spatial concerns. Its usefulness depends on the availability of space. People need to know when to leave things alone to leave enough room for everyone to be “entirely useful”. That is what the game of go teaches us, and this idea applies to life as it applies to go. Problems and burdens accumulate in private, social, and professional life. Even more so if you are an entrepreneur with a consuming business, and 24 hours are not enough to think about the thousand and one issues you are worried about. That’s why you must be brave enough to lighten your load and let go. That is the only thing that will allow you to create space in yourself for new energy. Energy is limited, which is why it is valuable and must be used

sparingly. The strategic use of energy is to use a minimum and draw a maximum of benefits.

How do you concretely use these ideas in your company?

All of this comes from within (neixin). What is service? What is our slogan? Make your customer smile. We like making our customers happy. If his or her arms are full, we immediately go and lend a hand. “We want your smile and not just your money;” is what should immediately be understood. Our reclamation hotline isn’t used enough! This is

the same frame of mind we have when it comes to managing the men and women in our company. How in the world could we imagine managing over 27,000 people, who in turn manage 2,700,000 customers a day, if we worked without smiling? This is not a type of management based on man-as-a-tool. We view our workers as human beings.

Isn’t there some idealism in what you are describing?

No. Why? Not only do we practice what we preach, but we are also very demanding toward our employees, managers,

and directors when it comes to this. Our culture is one of respect. We are very strict about these rules in terms of the quality of management’s relationships with employees, and employees’ relationships with customers. In fact, there is only one reason why we might end up dismissing an employee: if he or she fails to behave in a human fashion. As for our results, they speak for us. Our turnover rate is lower than the average in the profession. Among the 7-Eleven

franchises, we have the second largest growth rate, just behind Japan. Out of the twenty-four countries where the shop is present, we are in fourth place just after Japan, the U.S.A. (originator of the brand), and Taiwan.

We had few problems during the 1997 crisis. We neither laid off workers nor lowered salaries. The Asian crisis was not just a financial crisis, but also ethical.

How have you come to think in this way?

I have been working and observing life for thirty years now. I have practiced weigi for twenty-six years; it now runs through my veins. Since I was a child, I have loved reading the “classics”. You know, Asian philosophy is extremely

rich and quite complementary. Confucianism, Taoism, Sunzi, Buddhism, etc. all play a part in the behaviour of today’s Asians. In ordinary circumstances, everyone can work hard, with commitment and loyalty, as the Confucian doctrine suggests. But in times of crisis, people refer to Taoist concepts of freedom. Then, Indian philosophy defends virtues

and a form of idealism that are always difficult to put into practice but that are nevertheless essential for the maturation of the spirit. These are the foundations of Asian culture. That’s the way we are. It is how we see and live our daily lives. Some of us grew up with or received a Western education and think that the West holds a magic formula for success. They forget that the East is also rich in teachings.

All of these things have contributed to development of my way of thinking and my professional life. That is why I wanted to write a book on the topic2--to share my journey. I am preparing a second book intended to serve as a basis for a course on corporate governance at the University of Beijing as well as for my interventions in companies.

Although there are some firms that would never ask me in!


The Asian CEO in action, Direct Media 2003.