Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

A New Strategy

I’m going to be taking a new approach. Now that my book is actually written, and should soon be published as an ebook, I’ll be blogging more aggressively about Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and try to clear up a large number of misconceptions about what he wrote and what he did not.  These misconceptions are very widespread, but writing about them will enable me to demonstrate just how much richness exists in his writings, as humbly reflected in my own.


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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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Some would call the title of this post the “most quoted” quote of Sun Tzu’s entire book. However, I dislike the emphasis many place on learning “The Art of War” through disjointed quotations. Chapter I has a significant section on deception, but readers of this isolated quote might never learn the context associated with it. Allow me to explain.

When Sun Tzu elaborates on deception, he begins:

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable;

When using our forces, we must seem inactive;

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away;

When far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

A reader might glance over this and be tempted to remark, “Well, that sounds easy.” It most assuredly is not.

When in a conflict against fellow human beings, the opponent is a fellow man; being a fellow man, he is familiar with the patterns that accompany readiness to attack, signs of inactivity, and indications of proximity or lack thereof. These are signs that armies and other large organizations give off without conscious thought or effort. While not every leader or strategist is well versed with the subtleties that accompany them, they are all familiar with the bold strokes that accompany an armored cavalry thrust from a General Patton, as one example. These are things that are hard to conceal, yet easy to detect.

Thus, something more is required. This is the role of deception.

Unable to simply show the enemy nothing, the strategist instead shows his opponent something that the opponent wishes to see and wishes to believe. Having shown something, but having shown this something in a way that creates a false impression, the enemy is seduced into deceiving himself.

I should point out right now that Sun Tzu, a man who strenuously preached the importance of benevolence and sincerity in a commander’s personal dealings – not only with his peers and his sovereign, but spies and others in uniquely vulnerable positions where trust is a greater commodity than money – in no way supported deception as a way of life in general. He supported the use of deception in war. This is a critical distinction.

Sun Tzu continued,

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

Why feign disorder? Feigning disorder works because of a simple, time-honored principle: if you look like a sucker, someone is going to try and “sucker punch” you. This is also true in martial arts. A skilled martial artist who deliberately puts up a false front, pretending to be “slow” – mentally as well as physically – and to be quiet and passive, can lure an aggressive, careless opponent into making a first move in a careless manner that leads to a thorough beating. Such things have been known to happen. This reaction – seeing weakness, and pouncing on it – is deeply ingrained “alpha male” behavior.

If the opponent attempts to exploit a false opening, it is he who becomes exposed.

“If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is superior in strength, evade him.”

Against an opponent who is secure in defense, the best strategy may well be to await the opponent’s attack. When the opponent leaves his secure position to do battle, he may then be assaulted. However, if the opponent is superior in strength to you, you are not obligated to do him any favors and fight him on terms favorable to him; indeed, much of Sun Tzu’s strategy is devoted to not fighting on terms favorable to the enemy, but to fight on terms favorable to you. Thus, an enemy superior in strength can be evaded.

As we can see, Sun Tzu constantly sees delivering value to his stakeholders as the objective of his strategy. SunT zu does not seek fame or fortune via courage that brings battlefield defeat. Every thought and every action is devoted to fighting war in the most efficient, effective manner possible, seeking to bring it to an end as quicky as possible.

“If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

Another deeply ingrained alpha male behavior is to take advantage of the weak. If an opponent is weak, he may be treated lightly and with arrogance. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the man in a position of advantage may seek to not only defeat his opponent, but to thoroughly humiliate his enemy in every respect. This search for a more satisfying victory leads directly to carelessness.

Humans naturally do a sort of triage when dealing with threats. If one opponent seems to be weak, that opponent is left aside while the measures are taken against the stronger opponent. (This is a strategy made famous on the reality television series “Survivor.”) When the only opponent on a field of battle seems weak, the tendency of an already prideful man is to boast, “I have no enemy here! I am peerless! This foe is no match of mine! I can defeat him any time I wish!”

By the same token, a man who is attempting to behave in a rational way, but who is prone to bursts of anger, can be provoked into highly aggressive actions (as befit his core nature) if he is sufficiently provoked. Not everyone with a temper can be lured in quite so easily, but those that can be will frequently make careless mistakes.

“If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.”

In the late stages of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, commanders were making decisions when having remained awake constantly over the course of three days. Fatigue – individual and organizational – is one of the leading causes of critical mistakes. Giving the enemy any unnecessary chance to rest and recover his mental strength is unwise. When able to deny the enemy rest, one should do so, for fatigue only makes his job much harder.

“Attack him where he is unprepared; appear where you are not expected.”

Now we get to the crux of the matter.

Someone learning “The Art of War” as a grouping of isolated quotations and passages would be tempted to read this and believe that it stands wholly on its own. It does not.

Your opponent is unprepared because you have deceived him. He does not expect you because you have irritated him, made him arrogant, and denied him the rest required for him to regain his senses and reconsider his vulnerable position.

When engaged in warfare, every large deception you make is built on every smaller deception you have already made. Having seduced the opponent into deceiving himself as to your strength, disposition, intention, activity, and location, you lead him around calmly and effortlessly as if leading a donkey via a dangling carrot. You show your opponent what he wishes to see, and he decides, purely by himself, that it is so; in this way, you deceive without ever having spoken a word to him, without ever having “lied” in the conventional sense. You have assisted him in lying to himself. Thus, believing his own overconfident conclusions, he is completely at your mercy.

Thus can superiority in numbers and other measurements of strength be brought low, purely due to recognizing that an army is led by a falliable human being.


“These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.”

I summarize this passage with a simple quote: Do not tip your hand.

Having entered through all this trouble to deceive one’s opponent, to tip one’s hand and announce one’s tactics to the enemy via word, deed, or spy, is not only fatal to deception, but ruinous because this allows the enemy to develop successful countermeasures. One does not have to lie to not tip one’s hand; the leader merely requires discipline to keep his cards close to the vest rather than flaunt them for all to see. Thus is secrecy preserved.

Thus is victory won where defeat would otherwise be certain. By the same measure, thus is a crushing victory won obtained, routing the enemy with less loss to one’s own side, rather than a narrow, hard-fought victory that could have been obtained through brute force alone.

This is how maximum value is delivered to stakeholders via the most efficient use of resources possible.

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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.

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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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