By Sun Tzu
The Art of War was written by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago. Revered for its practical advice on warfare, the lessons here apply to anyone who leads others. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of war, along with practical advice for leading effectively. Three of the more important elements of success in battle, leadership, strategy, and tactics, are critical for victory.
The first chapters focus on leading effectively, not just in regards to strategy and tactics, but in how to instill confidence and purpose in followers. The focus here is on being strong and confident, but also on caring and being responsible for the well-being of others.
There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:
- Recklessness, which leads to destruction.
- Cowardice, which leads to capture.
- A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults.
- A delicacy of honor, which is sensitive to shame.
- Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
“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.”
Generals must lead by example, and they must exhibit behaviors and traits that give confidence to their men. When a leader takes unnecessary risks or makes decisions without thinking them through, his recklessness affects everyone in his command and weakens his authority. Soldiers expect their leaders to keep them on the right path to victory and keep them out of danger.
Leaders who are afraid to make decisions allow doubt and fear to take hold in their followers, causing confusion and unrest. Avoiding making decisions is another form of recklessness because doing nothing can be just as dangerous as doing something recklessly. When a general delays making the decision to advance or retreat, that hesitation can mean life or death, defeat or victory.
Leaders who are quick to anger are seen as out of control, unpredictable, and even unstable. If the leader has no self-control, it makes it difficult for his men to take his direction and leadership ability seriously. All leaders need a core of followers who help with strategies, planning, and other aspects of a successful campaign. When this core is afraid to speak out, valuable input and feedback are lost because of the fear of reprimand.
A strong leader should have a sense pride and dignity, in themselves, their men, and their purpose. This pride shouldn't be confused with self-importance. This type of pride is about having pride in the efforts of a campaign and the men who are responsible for making it a success. The strong leader reacts quickly to any external attack, or to any internal dissension among the ranks. This pride serves as the foundation for a cohesive unit.
A good leader cares about his followers but understands that there is a fine line between caring and enabling. When men know that their general cares, they respect him and the overall efforts of what they are trying to accomplish. But when a leader becomes more concerned with the troop's favor than the campaign itself, the results are destructive. Men become complacent, lose their motivation, and their commitment wanes.
Once a general or manager learns how to lead, he must learn how to use strategy. In battle, effective strategies require knowing the enemy and what conditions are most likely to be encountered. These strategies must be well-designed to address as many potential obstacles as possible, but they must also be flexible when encountering the unknown.
- Which army is stronger?
- On which side are the officers and men more highly trained?
- Which of the two generals has the most ability?
- In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
An army must know the strengths and weaknesses of their enemy to have any chance of victory. Understanding if the enemy is stronger or weaker determines how to create a winning strategy. When facing an army of superior strength, tactics and creativity play a big part in minimizing the opponent's advantage. Going head-to-head with a superior army is simply not practical. It takes cunning, extensive preparation, and the ability to change tactics quickly.
When an army is faced with an enemy that possesses superior training and leadership, the strategies of a campaign must reflect that. This is where creativity and alternative methods must be used to dilute the opponent's advantage. An effective general knows how to create sound strategies using proven techniques, but he also knows how to make adjustments and when to deviate from traditional tactics.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths a general can have is knowing and accepting when they are less capable than an opposing general. Personal pride and the desire to appear invincible can be a weakness if it prevents a general from seeing reality clearly. With an understanding of how they compare to their foe, an effective general can build a strategy that includes elements to negate that disadvantage.
Discipline is necessary for keeping campaigns focused and for instilling a sense of group purpose. Knowing how men are rewarded and punished, and the consistency of the consequences, indicates the level of discipline. If the enemy punishes their men too harshly or inconsistently, there is a good chance those men will be less disciplined in their commitment to the campaign. Of course, the same applies to a general's own troops. Knowing this important factor identifies weaknesses that can be exploited through focused strategy.
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”
While strategies focus on what to do, tactics focus on how to do it. Even the best of strategies will fail if they can't be implemented with effective methods. Men who follow blindly are certainly loyal, but men who understand the tactics of a strategy are far superior.
- So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.
- Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.
- Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.
Facing a stronger enemy requires understanding where the enemy is weak to increase the chances of victory. No matter how strong, or how well-trained, every army has weaknesses that can be exploited. By attacking these weaknesses, the chances for success are greater, and these successes help create confidence. These attacks minimize the enemy's advantages and can slowly neutralize their strengths.
A general who leads effectively, instilling confidence and purpose in his men, has prepared his troops for swift action. With sound strategies and tactics in place, a general and his men are prepared to attack quickly and ferociously. They are confident in their leader, confident in the strategies, and confident that they have the very best chance of being victorious.
Generals understand the importance of arriving for battle first. When an army can get to the battlefield before their opponent, they have some distinct advantages. They are able to prepare, both physically and psychologically, for the battle to come to them. When the enemy arrives, they are tired from the journey and then must face an opponent who is rested and ready.
“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”