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My final post on Chapter I of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” ends at the beginning: Sun Tzu’s introduction to the chapter. As Japanese writing structure places the emphasis on the conclusion, not on the beginning, I feel that this is appropriate for an ancient Chinese work, as line-by-line translation contains many perils when trying to understand the crux, the core essence of the view presented.

Even though Sun Tzu himself was a general, he was also a manager. Even though Sun Tzu was not a sovereign, he was also a leader. Not a single word in “The Art of War” reflects a selfish view of himself; Sun Tzu wrote for the benefit of others, that others might benefit from his wisdom and bring benefit to their own sovereigns. Those worthy of this knowledge would grasp it; those unworthy would find these lessons as meaningless as slapstick comedy. Whatever benefits Sun Tzu gained personally from this knowledge were obtained solely as a result of bringing value to others.

Sun Tzu wrote,

“War is of vital importance to the state; hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

These words were written during the “Spring and Autumn Period” of China, thought of as a long transitional period between eras of dynastic unity and stability. In Sun Tzu’s time, he was of one of seven states vying for supremacy, dancing on the bones of what had once been a unified Chinese Empire. War was not simply a matter of defending the “Han” people against foreign invasion; Chinese fought Chinese in wars over land, wealth, and influence. Indeed, the rise of the great Chinese philosophies was as a result of brilliant men seeking to escape from the shackles of what they viewed as a sort of permanent quasi-anarchy.

In this “period,” lasting for centuries, war became an inevitability rather than an occasional plague. Previously, armies were led by the retainer thought by the sovereign to be the best suited for the job, strictly on a temporary basis. Thus, with war becoming more regular, an incentive was created for a small class of professional commanders – generals – who would lead the mass conscript armies into battle and increase their odds of success.

Even as the men themselves were conscripts, Chinese warfare already featured the chariot – mentioned in Sun Tzu’s writings but soon abandoned in favor of more conventional cavalry – and crossbows, even at a time centuries before the birth of Julius Caesar, even before the army of Alexander the Great brought the Persian Empire low and advanced as far as India before turning back. Armies were highly sensitive to morale; desertion was a constant fear which Sun Tzu spent a significant number of words addressing, seeking to use generalship and circumstances to reduce this ill as much as possible rather than simply crack the whip more.

This is the context in which Sun Tzu wrote the above introduction. To him, war was not the health of the state; war was the potential death of the state, a cataclysm similar to a national heart attack that needed a general to perform CPR and save the nation from defeat and collapse. Even in “victory,” survival usually meant a massive expenditure of men and materiel that impoverished the entire society, making observations better suited to Adam Smith than Napoleon.

Thus, in modern terms, Sun Tzu was wholly motivated by a single objective encompassing his entire strategy: delivering value to his stakeholders. To Sun Tzu, this meant to bring victory in the quickest, least bloody, least expensive, least ruinous manner possible. However, recognizing that ideals of victory that he held, such as winning without fighting, were most difficult to achieve in the real world, Sun Tzu devoted himself to understanding the variables of warfare (in this sense, his “constants” are not things that remain unchanged; they are rather, things that vary enormously, but which must be examined without fail or exception), the strategies that bring about victory, the fallibility of man, the blending of offensive and defensive tactics, adaptability to an infinite variety of circumstances with an infinite variety of tactics, and best practices for managing a large organization of human beings.

Sun Tzu’s stakeholders were:

  • His sovereign;
  • His army;
  • And the public at large of his nation.

This view of stakeholders was then, and is now, remarkable in its breadth.

Many believed then, and a good many believe now, that someone serving a particular leader should absolutely never regard this as “public service”; the individual serves that specific leader as a retainer, serving at his pleasure and leaving at his whim. Judging “the public” to be an amorphous mass with no single will that cannot and must not be valued anywhere nearly as high as the interests of the sovereign, this manner of retainer seeks to please his sovereign alone, only caring for the public to the extent that this is convenient for the sovereign’s interests. By the same token, the army is viewed as a tool; and if a tool is not used, what good is it? Therefore, the army must be used, period. Furthermore, the army must be used for the maximum advantage of the sovereign without any concern for the public at large.

Sun Tzu recognized this view as short-sighted, politically motivated nonsense. The inter-connectivity of all things – as consistent with his Taoist philosophy – makes plain that the sovereign may be the ruler of the people, but he is dependent upon them; the army may be a tool of the sovereign, yet it is dependent on both the sovereign and the people. Even in an autocratic, monarchical system,  to act without the interests of the people in mind is to act with disregard for the self, even when viewed in an entirely selfish manner. Indeed, even the much-maligned Machiavelli wrote about the good of the people, abandoning notions of republicanism to try and shape good behavior by appealing to the base selfish interests of political princes. (Not that he really succeeded in this.)

Thus, by keeping wars short, by eschewing glory-hound behavior in himself and counseling against it in others, and even by seeking to forage on enemy territory and capture chariots and re-purpose them for his own force, Sun Tzu acted in a manner narrowly tailored to helping those he viewed himself as having an obligation to hold dear to him, even though this assuredly meant delivering death, destruction and plunder to neighboring states. Even here, Sun Tzu sought to end wars quickly and with a minimum of fighting so as to minimize the damage to neighboring states, for what is the point of destroying the village to save it? …Particularly if it’s your sovereign who’s going to rule that village. It’s more like, “If you buy it, make sure not to break it.”

When Sun Tzu narrowed “The Art of War” to, well, the art of war, he knew exactly who his stakeholders were; he did not over-extend himself in trying to speak as to philosophy, economics, or other things. He dealt narrowly with what his specialty was, and in that supposedly narrow niche, discovered and propagated knowledge that can only be considered vast, flowing like a vast river rich in natural bounty. In doing so, Sun Tzu was not “simple,” but rather, concise; his writings contained vast knowledge boiled down to the minimum number of strokes on papyrus or cuts into a bamboo strip as required to convey it to those capable of absorbing the knowledge.

In seeking to learn from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” you should ask yourselves the following questions.

  • Who are your stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders take top priority?
  • How inter-connected are your stakeholders?

This will assist you in assessing what is of vital importance to your stakeholders. After all, if you are managing a corporation, you would clearly regard your shareholders as those you are directly responsible to; yet your shareholders are indirectly dependent upon your relationship with your customers. Hence, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, customer relations are of vital importance to the modern corporation; on no account must they be neglected. When you understand how the idea works, this phrasing not only sounds good – it actually means something to you.

Or, to use my old adage from my time as a Japanese to English translator: Context is King. Really, all strategy is about putting things in proper perspective.

Like all good Asian ideas, it’s short and concise, it sounds simple, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. It is also, like all good Asian ideas, richly rewarding, a river full of life and bounty, drawn from many tributaries but flowing with the force of a single unifying idea.

This is the essence of all strategy.

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Sun Tzu wrote,

“Now, the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.”

Note that in Sun Tzu’s time, temples, being large buildings full of noble purpose, were employed as military headquarters on the eve of marching out to campaign, so this is where plans were formed or at least, finalized.

“The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. “

This principle is easily summarized as: winners plan ahead. Even if winners are prepared to alter their plans according to circumstances, they nonetheless make plans to begin with; and all making of plans begins with a careful assessment of all the circumstances forming the background of a conflict.

To wit:

The Moral Law: The motivating factor behind unified collective action; the strength of overall leadershp.

Heaven: The times and seasons, the weather factors, the broad, over-arching environmental factors.

Earth: The specifics of the terrain as they apply to field operations.

The Commander: Who leads what force? What is his or her nature, or adaptability to circumstances?

Method and Discipline: Which side is more organized and better supplied? How strong is the organization?

These are the “Five Constants” of warfare as judged by Sun Tzu, being factors which must be assessed at the outset of any conflict to shed light on the relative strengths of both sides. After all, only a fool plans against an opponent with strength clearly superior to his own in the exact same manner as an opponent with strength weaker than his own. Also, it’s not just about the aggregate level of strength; it’s who is responsible for these strengths and weaknesses, what they are in detail, where those strengths and weaknesses lie, when those strengths are in effect, and thus, as a result of the preceding, why advantages or disadvantages exist. Only with this knowledge can strengths be evaded and weaknesses exploited in an intelligent, systematic manner.

A higher level of wisdom is to understand that the point of planning is not the formation of the plan. (I realize this will seem highly counter-intuitive.) The point of planning is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in this level of detail. This being done, the strategist can depart from the plan on the basis of knowledge, not ignorance.

“Knowing yourself” and “knowing your enemy” was not some sort of abstract Taoist mysticism to Sun Tzu; he was a general, not a philosopher. He wanted to know himself, and his enemy, in concrete terms of direct relevance to planning for victory in the most effective and efficient manners possible. Only by rationally assessing reality as it is, not as one wishes for it to be, can a person develop a strategy that has a firm basis. In this way, even if the means are not part of philosophy themselves, the end result feels like an extension of natural law.

After all, Sun Tzu counseled to be like water, following the path of least resistance, yet striking with the force of a raging torrent. This is the result of not so much the plan, as the depth of the knowledge that was obtained in the formation of one.

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In studying Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” I found one piece of advice to be particularly poignant:

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

This principle has borne fruit throughout history. Those leaders in war who were regarded as sharing the dangers and sacrifices of the troops were particularly loved and respected by their troops. Some took this behavior to extremes; others simply made a point of showing solidarity with the rank and file.

Before getting carried away with this notion, let us read the next passage and understand both in proper context:

“If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”

Of course, we should bear in mind that the ancient Chinese idea of how to treat children is very much in line with “spare the rod and spoil the child”; however, Sun Tzu was, particularly by the standards of the ancient world, a humanitarian who regarded proper treatment as an advantage rather than a sign of weakness. Even so, Sun Tzu was a practical man mindful of reality; to be kind but soft is fatal to leadership in any organization.

Placed in the context of a modern business organization, these words may seem strange. Yet these words were no less strange in ancient times. The difference between a general and his men seemed as great as that between the earth and the sky; many argue that the difference between a Fortune 500 C.E.O. and a front line factory worker is of a similar breadth. It is also not particularly the point.

A father does not treat his sons well because he is their brother. A father looks after his sons because he has greater power and authority than they do, and thus, a greater responsibility to them, and greater control over himself; he chooses whether or not to make the extra effort. Thus it is with a businessman; there is no power that will force him to look after his employees’ interests. That is precisely why such behavior is respected and admired. Common is the leader who ignores the needs of those that follow him; rare is the leader who takes the time to ask himself, what ails those I am responsible for? What can I do to help them?

Though a manager can be too concerned with the superficial and not enough about the bottom line, similar to a “player’s coach” in basketball who lets millionaire players walk all over him more often than not, the wise leader looks after his charges by looking at the big picture; by taking responsibility for the overall success of the organization. False economy is not a viable long-term option; indulgences that harm the organization and lead to long-term failure are not in the best interests of employees, even if the employees themselves believe otherwise. No one said being a parent was easy.

Above all, trust can only be built by a combination of humanity and consistency. By ensuring that your instructions are followed, all while demonstrating through deed that you are concerned for the welfare of all and not just yourself, you ensure that you are not only liked, but respected. This is not done through verbal tantrums or making your nickname “Chainsaw”; it can only be accomplished by making sound decisions, persistently following up, and building a truthful expectation that you will act in the best interests of those impacted directly by your decisions.

This is a certain path to victory.

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