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.