Perhaps no piece of literature is quoted more often than The Art of War book by Sun Tzu.
Possibly the most important exposition on military strategy ever written. Written over 2,000 years ago, The Art of War is still extremely relevant to this day. Written in regards to dealing with military structure and strategy.
The Art of War can be used to gain an advantage in business and sports as well.
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Countless leaders have been inspired and followed the teachings from The Art of War. The Art of War is all about studying, strategy and leadership.
The concepts underlie many items we follow. We see them at work, school, and in advice we are given. Often times we don’t know the root. Perhaps over multiple sources of learning and inspiration the owner isn’t aware of the origin as well.
In a great line from what I feel is one of the greatest movies,
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” – Sun Tzu
Were you aware this was a Sun Tzu quote?
Most people will reference this from Vito Corleone unaware of where the source came from.
Recently I heard Bill Belichick speak on his use of the concepts in The Art of War for strategizing his game plans each week. He spoke about “avoiding what is strong” and “attacking what is weak”. Also, Belichick shared how Sun Tzu taught not to fight two different battles the same. Each week he creates a new game plan for each opponent so that they don’t know what to expect.
“So a military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape: the ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.” -Sun Tzu
The Art of War is broken down into 13 chapters.
Personally, I read and reference this book in one of two ways.
- I’m a random page flipper.
I just flip open a page randomly and read. Meditating on what i just learned and how I’m going to apply it.
- I have a purpose in mind that I want to learn or be inspired about.
Chapter 1: Laying Plans
The book begins with determining factors that can lead to victory or defeat. By accessing and determining which factors work towards your advantage you can maximize your potential for victory. Understanding yourself and understanding your enemy is a major key to victory.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu
Chapter 2: Waging War
Examines the prudence within winning a war. Decisiveness in working towards a resolution as soon as possible. As a continuation on the first chapter, resources and their limits need to be understood. Sun Tzu does not only speak about resources in regards to food, clothing, and equipment. He also speaks on the mental state of the soldier, and the effects back home.
We can carry that over into many aspects of our personal life. What is the value in a “victory” that is arduous, burdens our “home“, drains our “resources“, and leaves us mentally prostrated?
“Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 3: The Plan Of Attack
A lesson on the strength of unity in regards to victory versus relying on the size of the army. Attacking an enemy’s plan or strategy is the most critical step. Then you must separate them from their allies.
Stressed very clearly as the least effective way is to siege a city. A failed siege is used as an example in this chapter.
An emperor with overwhelming force laid siege to a city under command of an enemy general. Apparently a custom at this time, the emperor requested some wine. Instead of wine, the general sent urine instead. This enraged the emperor so much that he attacked the city immediately. After a month of fighting more than half of the Emperor’s army was dead.
A meaningful lesson that struck deeply with me was allowing your enemy a route to escape. It made me think of lessons I’d learned for family conflict and marriage.
You should not seek a victory in an argument over your spouse or family member, just a resolution.
I thought about this and the lesson on allowing a path for escape. Whether right or wrong, I’ve learned with myself not to try and corner my wife or loved one. Leave an avenue for escape so that the argument does not intensify, and resolution can be easier met.
“Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” – Sun Tzu
Chapter 4: Positioning
Understanding an in depth realization between offense and defense. Defending and securing your position before attempting to advance.
Like Ju-Jitsu, once you’ve gained a better position focus first on maintaining before advancing. You can’t rush to improve your position once again before securing the one you just achieved.
Also, what I remembered hearing often when I was managing in the corporate world, “control the controllables.” Sun Tzu speaks to controlling what you can in regards to yourself, troops, and resources. Learn what is beyond your control, the other troops and the opposing leaders.
I can easily see where this is applied in the workforce or home.
- We can’t control the weather, traffic, or a multitude of outside forces.
Yet, we can make the best out of the situation by not letting the uncontrollables control us.
- We can control our attitude, our plans, and how we are going to adapt and thrive when the uncontrollables confront us.
“The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 5: Use Of Energy
This chapter focuses on organization and structure. A pyramid of command must be established.
The individual soldiers constituting the base, the commanding general at the top. A high emphasis on training and communication needs to be observed. Clear understanding of responsibilities need to be established. With proper training, communication, and clear understanding of responsibilities alignment can be created. This allows a large group to work in unison to achieve a common goal.
Sun Tzu refers to a army moving cyclically like the moon and the sun. Different forces must be used in alignment.
Specifically referenced, “normal” forces requiring less energy and “extraordinary” forces requiring more energy. The alignment and cyclical attacks hopefully confuse the enemy. Believing that “normal” energy is extraordinary and “extraordinary is normal.
Referencing the five notes of music and how the primary colors can create an infinite amount of colors. This construction allows an organized group to be basic in structure but adaptable to an infinite amount of configuration.
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 6: Weaknesses and Strengths/Illusion and Reality
In this chapter Sun Tzu speaks speaks about setting traps. Presenting a situation in which an opponent feels forced to engage. Creating an illusionary path of success for your opponent to manipulate and direct his action.
A recurring theme in The Art of War book, Sun Tzu states to importance of knowing yourself and your enemy. Managing and maximizing your weaknesses and strengths is critical to be successful.
To adapt you must understand the strength and weaknesses of all parties involved. Being liquid allows you the necessary ability to shape your defense and attack to address the current situation.
What strategy may of worked before or what may work in the future has minimal relevance to what is currently happening.
You should adjust and respond to current conditions if your goal is victory.
“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let you methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 7: Maneuvering An Army
An emphasis in this chapter is that nothing is more difficult than the art of maneuver. Troop morale is significant to the success of a campaign.
A “day” is used by Sun Tzu in reference to a military campaign. At the beginning of the “day” spirits are high and begin to diminish towards the evening. Understanding the spirit of yourself and your enemy is crucial in determining time of attack.
It is best to attack during the “morning” when morale spirit is high. The opposite is your enemy, look to engage them in the evening.
This can be related to having difficult conversations, with your team or spouse. Knowing the best time to engage or correspond in regards to the time of “day” for them and yourself.
“A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 8: Variation Of Tactics
This chapter enforces the concept of flexibility and the need to adapt to succeed. There is consistently shifting variables and circumstances that a leader must be able to overcome and navigate his team through. In The Art Of War many guidelines are laid out for a leader to follow.
Specifically 5 faulty traits that a leader can possess which will lead to failure.
Lack of planning or foreseeing results from action.
An inability to take a calculated or measured risk. A weakened character when faced with a challenge.
Easily provoked and deviated from a strategic plan by lack of emotional fortitude.
- A Delicacy of Honor
Sensitive to shame and public opinion. A leader unwilling to make an unpopular decision.
- Over-Solicitude For His Men
A leader not willing to commit to a dangerous or arduous task when it is tactically necessary.
“These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war. Let them be a subject of meditation.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 9: The Army on the March
Great emphasis is placed on proper positioning. To have your men in the right place to maximize their efficiency and ability.
As one example, Sun Tzu states to have your army positioned with their right and rear to a bank. As minimal as this positioning may sound, it will strengthen your army immeasurably. Most soldiers are going to wield their sword with their right hand and hold their shield in the left.
Because of this, the left flank of an army is always stronger. Using the natural terrain of an embankment you limit your enemy’s ability to attack your right flank. This will allow you to fight in a more advantageous position.
Anybody who has spent some time managing will probably have heard “aces in their places”. Put your team in the best situation for victory. Move units or individuals into their strengths. Put them into positions that will hinder the enemy from being successful.
“He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 10: Situational Positioning
This chapter delves into the ground for which a battle takes place. Both the literal ground with which you walk upon and mental “grounds” that you are fighting the battle. The alignment and strength of the link within the unit is a common theme in The Art of War book, Sun Tzu highlights this once again.
It in noted that a general’s decisions or lack thereof, will influence the outcome of a battle as much as the terrain it is fought on. This rings true of his subordinates relative to the units they command.
A capable leader cannot make up for a poorly trained unit, as an effective unit cannot overcome poor leadership.
A great team is constructed with care. Leadership must direct a clear aligned message. Decisions must be unwavering and resolute.
“When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 11: The Nine Situations
In this chapter of The Art of War book, Sun Tzu discusses different challenges and stages you can expect during a campaign. It is critical that a general can first recognize which stage he is on in a campaign. Then adapt and direct his message clearly to his subordinates, then down to the common foot soldier.
Without recognizing the stage of the campaign a general cannot adjust. With no adjustment to his current situation a general is sure to fail. If a clear direction is not passed from his subordinates down to the units they command, disorganization will follow.
7 of the situations or stages are listed below
Anybody who has had a venture in marketing or especially starting their own business, many or all of these stages are relatable.
Campaign within your own territory.
Shallow encroachment in foreign or enemy territory.
Mutually advantageous or neutral land.
Land surrounded by other states or countries.
Deep inside enemy territory, land very rich for plunder but difficult to return from.
When the army is being attacked by opposing forces and rough terrain.
Survival is only through desperation.
“The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 12: Attack By Fire
A short chapter that discusses general use of weapons and using the environment as a weapon. Action and reaction need to be understood in combat.
An example is laid out by striking an enemy encampment with fire tipped arrows. A leader must observe their reaction before committing to any assault. If the burning encampment throws the enemy force into panic and disorder, attack immediately. If the enemy remains calm and organized, the best course of action would be to wait.
As often the case in The Art of War book, Sun Tzu not only refers to the literal use of fire but the metaphorical implication as well.
An impulsive and reactionary leader can be the example or correlation you take away. A calm, wise, nurturing leader, and his men can provoke and take advantage of his emotional reactions.
When reading and relating The Art of War you must pause on each thought and let them resonate within.Often times, I have moments or interactions in my life that I that I look back and directly relate to a reading from this book.
“The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.” -Sun Tzu
Chapter 13: The Use of Intelligence
The last chapter discusses the attrition of war and the use of spies. Raising an army and marching them long distance will come at a cost. The mental drain, loss of life, overall cost, and expenditure in a campaign can not be underestimated.
Calculating your your attacks, movement, and forward direction must be premeditated. A good football coach studies game film of the opponent. Analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and understands where to attack them.
As an equal concern a coach should know where the opposing team will attack them. A counter attack must be planned beforehand. Action is always faster than reaction!
“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” -Sun Tzu
Throughout the The Art of War book Sun Tzu reiterates the importance of long term goals. The impact from a single event will not be understood until many decisions later.
I try and remember these teachings in my life. How I relate to my superiors and subordinates. My ventures in business and the relationships I have with my students and family.
What teaching from The Art of War have you found yourself reflecting on?
If you have never read The Art of War book, what quotes or teachings in this article resonated with you?