The Art of War – It’s Not What You Think

The Art of War – Sun Tzu

One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful.  Subduing the other’s military, without battle is the most skilful.’

Confucius was not the only great thinker to come out of Northern China, Sun Tzu also came from that area and was renowned as the leading military strategist of his time, the 4th century BC. At that time, the Art of War was what you might call a Chinese whisper, being passed from person to person only via word of mouth.  Eventually the ideas were recorded on bamboo sticks and later on it actually became a book.  Simply known in China as The Sun Tzu, it was recognised as the leading thinking on military strategy at the time and it’s principles have remained relevant not only to military leaders but to the business and personal lives of the human race in the 21st century.9514771441_608c5dc0aa_z

Victory without Aggression

Not being a historian, my first impression was that a book about war in China in the 4th century BC would be pretty gruesome.  It was surprising then to find that Sun Tzu advocates victory without aggression.  As the quote above states, the most skilful leader is the one that can win a war without a battle being fought. As highlighted by recent conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan, once you commit to battle you will suffer losses.  Therefore the wise leader avoids battle wherever possible, and preserves his resources.  This gives him a much better chance of success in the long run.

Victory without aggression is best described as what we refer to today as win/win thinking.  In a battle, aggression and fighting come together to create a win/lose or even sometimes a lose/lose situation.  Sun Tzu encouraged leaders to see the bigger picture and not become obsessed with their enemy, rather think about the ‘Tao’ of the whole situation, to assess the situation from a detached point of view and maintain an objective viewpoint. By remaining calm in a chaotic situation you have a much better chance of finding a solution.

While most of us are not leading an army, we do face conflict in our daily lives.  Therefore the principle of not giving in to aggression, but staying calm and seeing the bigger picture to find a win/win solution is a very relevant message. Sun Tzu highlights that adding aggression to a situation of conflict can only lead to the conflict escalating.  Think of this next time you are in a tense situation, be it an argument with a spouse, a heated discussion with a colleague or perhaps being faced with an irate customer. Trying to win the day for yourself by being aggressive to that person will most likely lead to the situation to become more serious and long term damage may well be done.  If you can stay calm, even detached from your emotions this will enable you find a solution that suits both parties while allowing you to achieve your objective.

Focus on your own character

Sun Tzu states that a leader requires not only accurate information on his rivals but also a thorough understanding of himself. To be successful you must make yourself so.  You cannot rely on the weaknesses of others. Success comes to those who have developed the habit of constant self improvement, not those who only worry about what others are doing. You cannot control others, but by developing your own knowledge and character you can build invincibility.


Looking at the bigger picture

The smaller picture is always the false one, the insecure one. To look at the bigger picture is to open yourself up to all of the available information, which gives you a more accurate picture of what is going on, or the Tao of the situation. The smaller picture tends to be driven by fear, the bigger picture by an objective that is being pursued in a calm controlled way.

While the Art of war encourages leaders not to worry about the competition it does put the highest value on being well informed.  Sun Tzu discourages leaders from acting according to established beliefs, but urges them to be guided only by the facts that are available to them at the time.

Learning to read situations and act at the right time

Sun Tzu states that with the ability to read a situation based purely on the facts comes the opportunity for a leader to improve their timing.  Because they have detached themselves from the situation and assessed the cold hard facts the leader is in a much stronger position to read a situation and react in the most effective manner. The opposite of this is acting purely on instinct or impulsively and a leader’s decisions being guided by their  own preconceptions.

Ten things you can learn from the Art of War

  1. Aggression escalates conflict
  2. Always look for a win/win solution to end conflict.
  3. Don’t worry about your competition, focus on yourself, be the best you can be.
  4. Try and be the person dictating the situation, not the one reacting to it.
  5. Be a quiet achiever, make progress without arrogance.
  6. Decide on what you want from a situation and act on this decision, don’t leave things to chance.
  7. When chaos surrounds you, remain calm and think clearly to gain the advantage.
  8. Act on facts, not preconceptions or hunches.
  9. Always make sure you have accurate facts on which to act.
  10. Trust your judgement, if you have made a decision based on the facts don’t be afraid if it challenges the conventional wisdom.


Summary: The successful person solves conflict by staying calm and looking for a win / win solution rather than letting their aggression lead him into battle.