Art of War

Sun Tzu

HarperCollins Classics

ISBN: 978-0-00-742012-4

Long time ago there walked in the dynasty of the Chinese Monarch Helii of the Wu nation, a man called Sun Tzu. In the time when the kingdom was caught up in conflict with neighboring states and reeling under the marauding forces of the neighboring larger states, Sun Tzu came up to the Emperor and offered his services to turn the tides and make the empire win. This man excelled in an art, of making war. For him, it was like science, or art, which can be honed with thorough discipline and can fairly guarantee the predicted outcome to be true. Here was a man who saw art in cunning, in war and in its organization.

He laid out principles of engagement in war, of behavior and qualities of the general who must lead the army to battle and perhaps to victory. These principles were written on wooden slates and were later translated to English to become a much celebrated work among the corporate in the twentieth century. Surprising is the fact that how little has changed when it comes to war, except for the landscape in which we fight today, the corporate.

This books is a translation of the very same Chinese text and provides not a story but bulleted guidelines for leaders who wants to be victorious in war. It is more of a management treatise and perhaps I should not be judging the literary skills of a war general and that too when what I am reading is merely a translation and not the original work. But it was a very interesting exercise to sit and ponder over each point and think of things around, in office and what I’ve read in books and in here and there which might corroborate or contradict the point being made. He does make sense most of the time.

Here are a few interpretations that I offer:

On Laying Plans:

A plan has high chances of success if the manager possesses these three essential qualities:

  • Getting the right people in the right job.
  • Set these right people in the right position/rank.
  • Arrange and manage resource and expenditure so that it doesn’t break backs.

This is a key managerial skill in modern times. But it is not the only one. Through his effective management skills, the manager must develop a culture, which Sun Tzu calls the ‘Moral Law’ such that the subordinates:

  • Follow him.
  • Have faith in him without any fear for consequences.

The manager must know the market (heavens and earth) and its variations (seasons) and must understand the following points while waging wars:

  • Haste makes waste, but battles (projects) if protracted will dampen the ardor of soldiers and raise operational costs to enable smooth function.
  • Only those who are thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war can thoroughly understand the most profitable way of carrying it on.
  • Sun Tzu promotes pilfer and plunder so that the state may not be burdened. I do not totally agree with this statement. Rather, I see it in a different light. Often, projects are cash strapped even though they are promising. Many green-field initiatives are slowly smothered because of the lack of adequate funding or because they are judged by the same benchmarks the other projects are being judged with. This is where the manager can apply his business acumen to generate funds for his project domestically. Many people have done that before. I remember that in our engineering college, there was an overall finance team (comprising of students) to arrange for and manage sponsorships from outside agencies during our cultural fest ‘Hill’fair’ and technical fest ‘Nimbus’. This had a direct impact on the funding that each departmental team would receive. But these teams would also try and often succeed in getting sponsorships for their own use other than what would be allocated by the global finance team. In this way, given a little leeway and the projects might become autonomous, self-feeding organism capable of nurturing more talent and creativity at workplace and benefitting the entire company.
  • Reward men for victory so they may be roused to anger in order to perform (kill). A demotivated team seldom achieves anything and failure to recognize stepping stones, announcing them and celebrating them while giving due credit to the one who owns it is a must for motivating them further to do their best and for the others to follow suit.

On Strategy:

  • Sun Tzu lays immense emphasis on attack by stratagem. He says, the goal of war is to take it all, to win, not destroy. A close parallel that I can draw in the business world is that of acquisitions. Big companies seldom acquire other smaller companies to quell competition, but to supplement their own quivers with added skills. But this acquisition process is like tight ropewalking with a well on one side and an abyss on the other. So, one has to ensure that acquisitions do not destroy the values of the acquired company for which it was acquired in the first place.
  • A fine understanding of our own limits and capabilities is a must if we are to win. This is the first step to victory. The second vital step is to know the enemy and the third is to know the battlefield. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

On Fair Practice:

  • Armies are not administered like the rest of the kingdom. It should be based on the prevailing conditions on and off battlefield.
  • If the ruler, in a bid to equality for all treats the military with the same benchmarks, he might actually be lowering the morale of the entire army. Similarly, he’ll do no good by appointing wrong people in wrong places.
  • If the manager is to succeed, he must understand every unit individually. Not every person is the same, and should not be treated like anyone else. No one is equally adroit at everything, so do not expect Sachin Tendulkar to do too well in F1 racing, or Alonso to fare well in cricket.
  • If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to the general, they’ll not prove submissive and will be useless. If, when attached, they are not punished for misdeeds, they’ll be useless still.
  • Regard your soldiers as your own children and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look at them as your own beloved sons and they’ll stand by you even in death. But if you are indulgent but unable to make your authority felt, kind hearted but unable to enforce your commands, then your soldiers are spoilt brats and will be doomed like you.

Tactical Dispositions:

  • To protect ourselves from defeat, we need good defenses, but to win, we’ll need offense and the knowledge of when the enemy is at their weakest. Patience being the virtue here, one has to wait until the time is right. War is just how we mix and match only two basic maneuvers, offence and defense.
  • Sun Tzu puts it beautifully when he says, ‘To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole empire says “Well done!” To lift an autumn hair is not sign of great strength, to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of quick ear. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an army that is already defeated. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.’

On Espionage

  • He says that the art of war lies in deception and in knowing self and the enemy. To know the enemy, we need insiders, or convert their spies into our allies. He asks to treat these converts most highly among all spy ranks for they will bring news from the enemy frontiers. But I find a contradiction. Since deception is the key here, how can we ever be sure that they have converted for real and are not following the same art of war that we profess to possess? What if they are loyal to their masters and are serving them through misguiding us with false news and strategies?

A digression, but an observation nevertheless was that Chinese people knew of colors. Incidentally, most of the essential qualities, the most trivial ones were of count five. Five basic colors, 5 musical notes, 5 cardinal tastes etc. They also knew something that Newton explained later, that stones and logs would continue to be at rest until someone pushed them, or a round log was set on declivity where it would roll down and come to rest only after it stopped. Another funny aspect of translations is that these do not translate the maxims too well. So what might be a really compact and powerful line in Chinese, in its translation loses that appeal and you are like ‘that isn’t an adage, it’s merely a sentence’. There were many such occasions here and I found them really funny.

So, the 63 pages tell a lot about that time, but that is not the end of it. The lessons echo throughout history from Hitler’s fall in Stalingrad to America’s defeat in Vietnam and the Kargil war would also stand witness to the validity of the principles of the advantage of terrain and skill. This is a book that teaches how to make war profitable, and whether we recognize it or not, our life itself is an everyday battle where we are trying to break even and climb up the profit curve. The skills mentioned here on self and social awareness easily extend to the modern concept of ‘Emotional Intelligence’. I might also say that though the book is from war time, it holds valuable lessons for peace time too. A worthy read, and truly a beautiful art to master.

(Images Courtesy: Google)