Sun Tzu wrote,

“According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.”

Consider that this phrase emerges in a chapter on the laying of favorable plans for victory. Consider that generals throughout history, in times both modern and ancient, are reluctant to change their plans after having committed to them. Furthermore, changing one’s plans is usually interpreted by others as a sign of weakness, lack of preparation, and even laziness and stupidity. To alter the direction of a large organization is to encourage disorder in the ranks, lack of faith in the leadership at the top, and presents a muddled picture to stakeholders large and small.

Such considerations were not invented in modern times. If a general altered his plans, word of it would surely get back to the advisers of the sovereign; the general’s political enemies would pounce upon the change as a sign of unsteady leadership, hinting – or perhaps lobbying – that a change in command should take place so that someone else can have a turn at either implementing the original plan, or at forming a new plan without the taint of unsteadiness.

Why, then, does Sun Tzu write this?
Sun Tzu’s primary focus and overriding goal was to deliver value to his stakeholders: his sovereign, his soldiers, and the civilian population that sustained both his sovereign and his soldiers through taxation, which is simply a word for appropriating the labor and hard-earned money of the public. He was not in public service as a military professional for glory or the sake of history. He did not put blinders over his eyes. He saw, through the experiences of others as well and his own, a simple, salient fact:

Reality must intrude.

Even if one can be said to have a perfect plan, there can still be imperfect circumstances. To be so devoted to one’s plan as to never change it;  so in love with it, so wedded to it that it must never be altered in any way: this is to flagrantly ignore reality. War, among other activities, takes place in the real world, not on a chessboard. To lose a match at chess is to temporarily lose a few pawns until the next game. To lose in war means for many soldiers to die. To lose may even result in an entire state perishing. As Sun Tzu was well aware of, the dead cannot be brought back to life.

Sun Tzu’s message is to never be so committed to your plan that you are unprepared and unwilling to depart from your plan to take advantage of a genuine opportunity for victory that you did not, or could not, anticipate. Nor should the leader be unwilling to depart from his plan to avoid some great disaster that otherwise awaits him. To do otherwise is to allow stubbornness and recklessness to rule the self and condemn others to misery and loss. That is the opposite of delivering value to one’s stakeholders.

This also applies to “The Art of War” itself: never be so mesmerized by even this wonderful, rich book into thinking that it shall help you form plans that cannot and should not ever be altered according to circumstance. That would be wasting an important message from the original author.

Reality must intrude upon all plans. The wise strategist sees this as an opportunity.

Ebook preparations beginning

My original plans for this blog didn’t exactly proceed smoothly, but that’s because I’ve been exploring options and using a blog to act as a central location for most of my interests, The Modern Strategist. I’m planning to turn the posts here and other extended length sections on the first chapter of The Art of War into an ebook, probably for free distribution since I want people to read more of my work. So stay tuned.

Sun Tzu refers to “method and discipline” as the fifth constant, which refers to two separate things.

First, there is the process by which the organization is managed; this includes logistics, the science of getting resources from where they are gathered to where they are needed most, in addition to the process of communicating instructions and receiving feedback to manage the organization effectively.

Second, there is discipline, which is how the people are managed. For this, I will proceed directly to the passage that follows.

“In which army is there greater constancy, both in reward and punishment?”

Our modern world holds a common saying that reads: “No good deed shall go unpunished.” When an organization not only lets good behavior go unrewarded, but in effect, rewards bad behavior by its employees and managers, the effect is cancerous, crippling operations by removing the incentive for the rank and file to report problems up the chain of command, act on their own initiative to mitigate or eliminate problems before they become critical, and creating long-term resentment against the commander or executive’s leadership. This is a poor way to handle an organization.

As with taxes, punishing good behavior will result in less of it; rewarding good behavior will result in more of it. However, both rewards and punishments must be seen as consistent, or they will not be considered fair. A leader who is strict, but fair, will be respected where one who is indulgent or biased will not be. Even if a leader is loved, because he is liberal with rewards, a lack of consistency in enforcing his rules and punishing violations thereof will lead to contempt, and the organization can then be compared to a group of spoiled children, unfit for any practical purpose.

However, should a leader treat his subordinates with respect, rewarding the behavior he wishes to encourage with benevolence, sincerity, wisdom, and above all, consistency, he will not only be respected, but trusted and admired. This is a certain path to victory.

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

Those accustomed to believing Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was the only work on strategy read in older times may find these words surprising; worse, they may assume such words to be hypocritical nonsense. However, Sun Tzu was quite serious: how a Commander, or one acting in a similar capacity, treats his enemies, should not have any bearing on how he treats those he counts as subordinates, peers, allies, and sovereigns.

To be wise is not to constantly seek to impress others with one’s wisdom; it is to speak with the words that are necessary. To be sincere is not to reveal all of one’s secrets; it is to be truthful with what one does say. To be benevolent is not to be soft; it is to act in the best interests of others in the long run, rather than for short-term gain. To be brave is not to be reckless; it is to discard useless fear and hesitation to take advantage of the critical moment. To be strict is not to be cruel; it is to ensure that one’s instructions are obeyed, so that the Commander’s words are treated with respect and not contempt, and for the organization to function effectively.

Those who are deficient in these virtues are not guaranteed to fail. However, they are making implementing their strategies more difficult by sowing doubt and dissent. Only by building trust, communicating effectively, and having a well-founded reputation that inspires respect, can a leader truly use his organization in a dynamic and effective manner.

Above all, the Commander should separate war from peace and never conflate the two. His enemies should know how he treats his friends, and his friends should know how he treats his enemies; in this manner, his friends will not want to become his enemies, yet his enemies, will wish to become his friends.

Earth, the Third Constant

“Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.”

And so, “Earth” represents the terrain.

“Earth” represents the details of the environment that may change greatly, even over a short distance. Ignorance of these details courts disaster.

When real estate agents speak of the three factors affecting the value of a piece of land as “location, location, location,” they are speaking of “the Earth.” When Chinese house hunters recoil in horror at a property because a street is aimed directly at the front of the house perpendicular to that which runs in front of the house, thus bringing evil directly to the front door according to feng shui, this is a consideration of “the Earth.” However, this does not mean physical terrain alone.

There is a different kind of terrain: the human terrain. Humans vary greatly from place to place, and even from individual to individual; it is in-depth knowledge of the differentiations between people, their thinking processes, their actions, and their deeper human nature, that provides the strategist with a great advantage.  Everyone can see what is on the surface; the strategist looks deeper to see what is intangible, invisible to the naked eye.

Thus does the strategist find advantage where others do not.

Heaven, the Second Constant

“Heaven signifies day and night, cold and heat, times and seasons.” Thus, Heaven signifies the broader environment of a conflict, regardless of the nature of that conflict.

Some say that Napoleon studied Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” extensively in developing his military strategies. However, if this is so, Napoleon blinded himself to the constant of Heaven when he invaded Russia in ignorance of the seasons, and was thus defeated by the Russian winter far more than any battlefield setback up to that point. This is one aspect of Heaven.

However, for the modern American businessman, the fiscal year, S.E.C. filing schedules, the filing of taxes, and public disclosure laws, are every bit as important and ever-present as the seasons and the phases of the moon. This is the broader legal environment within which a corporation exists.  Ignorance of Heaven is simply not acceptable.

Each strategist is responsible for understanding the context of his or her battlefield. Let each of us meditate on what constitutes our broader environment, and how we may take this into account as we conduct our business.

One of the more fundamental concepts in Sun Tzu is “The Moral Law,” one of the Five Constants of warfare, as translated by Lionel Giles in 1910. Regardless of the label we use for it, Sun Tzu’s definition serves well: “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.” Thus, “The Moral Law” is the unifying cause that unites a nation, an army, or a corporation; it is, in a more military sense, the mission. In business, this is what constitutes the content of the mission statement to all stakeholders.

Sun Tzu’s concept of generalship is public service, albeit for a ruler who, in his day, was a king, and thus a law unto himself. Nonetheless, the same core principle holds: a nation with a stronger reason to fight and more vibrant leadership has an advantage in war. This advantage is far from absolute; it is merely one of five constants Sun Tzu writes of. However, its importance cannot be dismissed.

In American history, various self-appointed missions have come and gone. One of the more notable ones in war was that expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his “Day of Infamy” speech; he laid out to the nation a great cause justified any hardship and any sacrifice in obtaining what was considered to be righteous vengeance against Japan, in addition to full war against Japan’s ally,  Germany, in ending further threats to American soil. What matters here is that the American people were heavily motivated by the idea behind American involvement in the war, now that the war had been brought to America (from their layman’s perspective).

The Moral Law is unity of purpose. Unity of purpose, in turn, provides the motivation for those participating in the organization to act, to follow orders, to obey regulations, and to further the interests of the leader. It is the foundation of organized action. Its importance must not be dismissed.