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The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
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1-Page Summary 1-Page Book Summary of The Art of War

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a renowned guide for how to engage in conflict and be successful in battle. Written more than two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinese warrior and philosopher, details the nature of competition and psychology of leadership and provides strategies for how to approach both. Although his teachings are geared toward actual military conflict, the principles can be useful in all arenas of conflict or competition, even at a personal level.

Much of Tzu’s teachings revolve around the concept that victory without direct fighting is the most advantageous way to win. Part of attaining this type of battle-free victory involves five traits of successful military operations: the Way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.

The Way describes the harmonious relationship between the government and civilian populace. When governments treat their people fairly and with respect, the people will be loyal and more apt to support government decisions when conflict arises. People will also be more willing to join in the conflict if they believe in the government they will be tasked to defend.

The weather means the literal seasons and conditions of whatever environment in which the battle will be waged. Certain weather conditions are not conducive for a military campaign. For instance, both winter and summer encompass dangerous conditions, such as blizzards or droughts, that can hinder the advancement, safety, health, and sustenance of a troop.

The terrain relates to the “lay of the land,” meaning the geographical and physical factors of certain types of terrain. These factors make a parcel of land either advantageous or disadvantageous for advancement or battle. Factors to consider include distance to be traveled, the layout of the terrain and accompanying effort required to cross it, the size of the land, and safety and dangers encompassed in the geography.

The leadership describes the acuity and competence of the person charged with leading a fighting force. A good leader should be intelligent, trustworthy, humane, courageous, and stern. When all of these factors are at play, the leader is capable of making sound decisions and can count on the people to support them.

Discipline relates to the structure and organization of the personnel hierarchy. Determining who is best suited for high-ranking roles, who is capable of being brave, and who is weaker than the others is as important in determining a strong strategy as supplies are for the health of the troops.

You should consider how these five traits affect both your side and your opponent. Only in knowing both your strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the enemy, can you begin to form a strategic plan. When you understand these traits, you will be able to assess the likelihood of victory in any circumstance. If victory is not certain, you should not engage in conflict.

Strategic Use of Resources

Part of a competent strategy is the intelligent use of resources. Resources relate to everything needed for battle, including food, troops, money, and weapons.

Once you’ve assessed the five traits, amassing and training your fighting contingent is the next priority. You should only gather fighters when you deem thebattle to be absolutely necessary and believe victory is the likely outcome. Amassing a force...

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The Art of War Summary Shortform Introduction

The Art of War was written as a strategic handbook for how to navigate military conflict. The principles and suggestions provided throughout the book are geared toward armed struggle and the relationships between governments and military factions. Because of this, much of the language used throughout this summary involves military jargon and references. However, the teachings of this book are applicable to real-world...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 1: General Overview of Conflict

Military action encompasses the health of an entire nation, as the success or failure of the action balances life and death. Because of this importance, military conflict should be examined thoroughly before any action is taken.

These examinations should happen on home ground and involve five basic assessments: the Way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.

Five Traits of Successful Military Action

The Way describes the harmonious relationship between the government and civilian populace. When the government treats its people with kindness and concern, the people are more apt to support government agendas and be loyal.

  • This loyalty translates to support of military strategy and the willingness of those tapped to participate in the conflict.

To ensure success on the battlefield, generating support at home is vital. You gain trust in leadership when you treat all people equally, rules are clear and balanced, and punishment is just and distributed consistently and equally.

When support is strong at home, amassing a strong force becomes easier. However, the Way is also essential within the troops.

  • **You ensure...

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Shortform Exercise: Preparing for Battle

Sun Tzu provides a number of considerations required once conflict with an opponent has been developed. But how do these considerations translate when applied to your own personal conflicts?


When was the last time you were in conflict with a person or group of people? What was the conflict about?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 2: Setting the Stage for Victory

In order to set the stage for victory, you need to manage both your resources and your forces wisely.

Wise Resource Management

One way a mishandling of resources leads to defeat is through extensive and exhaustive battles. Extensive and lengthy operations deplete your reserves. Thus, an intelligent leader will not keep his troops in the field for lengthy periods.

  • Waging war is like igniting a fire. If the flame burns too hot for too long, it will burn itself out.
  • Similarly, engaging in extended battles without gain will exhaust your resources, including weapons, money, energy, and food. This will weaken your troops and lead to loss.

Therefore, battles should be swift. Be big and bold, attacking quickly and ferociously, then retreating.

Tactics for Ensuring Ample Resources

Use your enemy’s resources when possible to sustain your troops. Build your armor from your home stores, but when you win the battle, nourish your bodies with the enemy’s food. Feeding off the enemy’s food supply has three benefits:

  1. You save your resources for when they are really needed, such as during a lengthy campaign.
  2. You reduce the resources of the...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 3: A Thoughtful Plan of Attack

Victory is not just winning the battle. Killing is not the most important thing. Destabilizing your opponent is. If the battle is won but the opponent’s forces and country are obliterated, that is a lesser victory than if you are able to overcome them and force a surrender.

  • If you can weaken your opponent’s resolve and force them to concede with their nation intact, your victory is more successful.
  • The people will have greater respect for a battle won with integrity than one won through total destruction.

If you prepare your forces and show your prowess in the five traits, you will have won the psychological battle and may avoid a physical one. If the surrender comes before a battle is fought, all the better. Killing should only be a matter of necessity to survive, not the goal of the mission.

Strike Preemptively to Avoid Battle

The best time to strike an enemy is when they are involved in preparations. Strike before the enemy is fully mobilized, and they will be unable to fight back. This may prevent a battle. This strategy involves using intelligence, rather than brawn, to win.

If intelligent strategies don’t work, the next strategy is to win...

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Shortform Exercise: Sizing Up the Competition

You know that intimate knowledge of your enemy is essential to any good battle strategy. This information can go a long way in helping you determine the best way to approach conflict.


Think of a conflict in the past that was not resolved in your favor. What knowledge of your opponent would have been useful ahead of time? Why would it have been useful?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 4: Organizing Your Forces

The formation that a group of forces takes signifies the psychological state of those forces. How you organize your troops provides insight into the stability and ability of your strategy and forces. Therefore, the formed express volumes and the formless express nothing. Be sure to hide your troop’s formation.

Likewise, the stance or formation of your enemy indicates their psychological state. However, you cannot force your enemy to take a stance. You must understand that victory can be predicted but not created.

  • If your enemy fails to expose themselves through formation, you cannot know whether victory is certain.
  • If victory is not certain, you should not attack. You can only prepare your own troops.

Defense vs. Offense

Defense means laying low and becoming unseeable. Within strategy, aim to appear formless, or unorganized, to keep the enemy from attaining insight into your forces. But keep your troops organized, and be prepared for the opposition.

  • A good defense is the appearance of formlessness.
  • Be defensive when...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 5: Mobilizing an Attack

Using force means allowing the momentum of the conflict to move your hand. A good leader allows momentum, not the brawn of the troops, to provide efficiency of strategy. Let momentum work in your favor, and victory will require little effort.

Momentum can be created by manipulating your opponents. Make your opponents follow the path you lay out for them. When they are on your path, you know when and how to attack.

  • Assuming a formation to create a false perception of your troops will cause your opponent to take a certain shape, one you’ve manufactured and control.
  • Dangle a carrot in front of your opponent by convincing them of manufactured gain, and you will know what their next move will be.

When you force your opponent into action, you can see the ins and outs of their preparedness and strength. You can determine their behavior patterns when you create scenarios where they are forced to act.

Orthodox vs. Unorthodox Action

In battle, fighting is unremarkable. It is straightforward in action. But victory is attained through the remarkable. Unremarkable and remarkable actions are also referred to as orthodox and unorthodox actions, respectively.

Both...

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Shortform Exercise: Avoiding the Straight and Narrow in Battle

Sometimes, you need to be creative in how you approach a conflict or an opponent. What constitutes creative solutions varies from situation to situation.


Have you ever been accused of wrongdoing unjustly? Who was the accuser? What was the accusation?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 6: Resilience vs. Vulnerability

Sun Tzu describes two conditions of opponents in conflict: empty and full. Fullness signifies an army who is strategic and prepared and has the advantage. Emptiness signifies an army who is reactive and unprepared and is at a disadvantage.

  • You must avoid battle with people who are full.
  • You must never battle when you are empty.
  • The only mode of success is to strike the empty with the full.

Part of being full means always having the advantage. Staking claim to a battlefield first and waiting for opponents to arrive creates a position of comfort. Arriving last and encountering comfortable opponents creates a position of stress.

  • If you are first, you are able to prepare. When you are prepared, you are assured and calm and have the advantage.

If you are last, the enemy has the advantage. When the enemy has the advantage, do not approach them. Retreat and go to new ground.

Opponents will follow any path they believe leads to advantage and gain. Opponents will not follow any path they believe leads to harm. Therefore, the act of retreating will give your enemy the impression that you are not able to fight. They may see your retreat as an...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 7: Fighting the Good Fight

Struggle is the energy required to gain advantage. Combat is the toughest form of struggle, meaning it is the hardest way to gain advantage. However, there are easier ways to gain advantage.

Location, Location, Location

When the path to battle is long, resources are used and troops tire. This makes either you or your opponent weakened and vulnerable to attack. Therefore, use the distance traveled for battle to your advantage.

  • When your journey to battle is long, double the speed of travel to arrive sooner than expected. Your opponent will be relaxed as they wait and unprepared for your early arrival.
  • When your opponent’s journey to battle is short, force them to take circuitous routes to lengthen their journey. Forcing the enemy to defend multiple points or cherished locations disrupts their straight path.

When you travel far for battle, you are in enemy territory. The terrain is unfamiliar. Until you know the advantages and disadvantages of the land, you cannot prepare a strategy. Use local guides to assist in understanding the environment.

  • The IChing states, “Chasing deer without a guide only takes you into the bush.”

To gain advantage...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 8: Flexibility in Leadership

A good leader knows how to adapt to make any situation an advantageous one. You must have a flexible mind to be able to see advantages in the land and in your position and make use of them. If you maintain a constant stance or structure, you may also reveal your form and weakness of mind to the enemy, which puts your troops in harm.

Be willing to adapt your strategy accordingly depending on the circumstances. If you merely allow the momentum of forces to serve as a guide for action, your advantage will never change.

If you try to push your troops without the benefit of adaptation, even if your force is bigger, you will have a hard time gaining the trust of your troops. If your troops don’t trust your judgement, they won’t fight for you.

Rules of Adaptation

The ability to adapt means having contingencies in place when momentum is not on your side. It also means doing the opposite of what seems advantageous in the moment. The following are rules for adaptation:

  • Have plans in place for how to handle being surrounded or backed into a corner to balance your disadvantage.
  • Avoid action that seems too easy, such as taking a direct route when there are...

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Shortform Exercise: How Flexible Are You?

The ability to pivot and adjust your plans accordingly is vital to any successful campaign. However, change can be difficult, especially in high-stress situations.


When was the last time you were forced to adapt your plans because of outside influences?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 9: Maneuvering with Advantage

How you maneuver your troops should be based on advantage. Be aware of the advantages and disadvantages involved in any action.

Reading the Environment

Water

When a body of water crosses your path, the following advantageous maneuvers should be considered.

  • Avoid the water if possible.
  • Do not meet an enemy in water. Wait for half of them to cross, then strike.
  • Do not face the current of a river or head against the flow.
  • Do not anchor your boats downstream -- the enemy may ride the current down the river and destroy your troops on impact.
  • If it rains and the river is white-capped and turbulent, wait for the water to calm down if you must cross.

Land

Use the land to your advantage. Always keep your back toward the most advantageous direction. Choose level ground, for it is easy to cross. If level ground is not available, take a high position.

  • High ground allows the momentum to swing downward.
  • Low ground is often overgrown and damp, which can lead to illness.
  • When people are in the dark or are wet for too long, they can become depressed and sickly. Maintain good physical health, and stay close to...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 10: Land of Opportunity and Danger

Within the strategy of successful leadership, you must understand both the types of terrain and grounds on which battles may be waged. Terrain includes all physical elements of the land, and grounds refer to the psychological considerations encompassed in the land.

Terrain

There are multiple types of terrain, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Terrain works as a supplementary member of your force, aiding advantage and victory. You should have a strong sense of the surrounding terrain. The types of terrain and encompassing qualities are as follows:

Easily passable terrain: Terrain that allows both sides to move freely in and out.

  • If you command this terrain first and occupy the easiest routes, you will have the advantage.

Hung up terrain: Terrain that is easy to enter but difficult to retreat from.

  • If the enemy has taken this terrain but is not prepared, you can advance with the advantage.
  • If the enemy is prepared, advancing brings no advantage and you may become stuck and unable to retreat if necessary.

Standoff terrain: Terrain that is unwelcoming to both sides, thereby creating disadvantages for both sides....

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Shortform Exercise: What Ground Are You On?

Sun Tzu’s description of the nine grounds provides insight into how to approach certain environments. With this knowledge, you can understand what type of ground you are on and how to approach it.


Think of someone with whom you are frequently in conflict. How would you describe the type of ground existing between you?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 11: The Use of Weapons

Weapons are not relegated to guns, tanks, and ammunition. A weapon is any physical element that assists in battle.

Fire Attacks

Fire attacks come in five forms: burning people, burning provisions, burning tools, burning storage facilities, and burning arms. The use of fire should be rational and for a purpose.

Use fire not to destroy but to create opportunities. The use of fire should be to cause a disruption or vulnerability in your enemy or confuse them. When using fire attacks, the strategy is to follow-up swiftly to take advantage of the mayhem caused.

  • Once the fire is raging, it’s time to attack.
  • When...

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 12: Espionage At Your Disposal

Knowing your opponent is vital to any successful conflict outcome, and part of knowing your opponent is understanding their conditions. Therefore, people are the most reliable and gainful sources of intelligence about the enemy.

There are five types of spies: the local spy, the inside spy, the reverse spy, the dead spy, and the living spy. Genius in strategy is when all five types of spies are in use and remain unknown to all but you.

Local spies: Spies generated from the locals in any territory.

Inside spies: Spies currently serving as executives in the enemy’s ranks.

  • There may be disgruntled officials within the opponent’s ranks, those overlooked for promotion, those laid off, those unfairly treated or punished, and those who are overly ambitious and greedy.
  • Some inside spies will be people who wish to push their own agendas or jump ship before their side is defeated.
  • Some are just untrustworthy or conniving people.
  • Some may be relatives of mistreated or condemned officials.
  • These people can be turned with a bribe or promise of personal gain.
  • Once turned, their benefit comes in alerting you to enemy strategies, conditions,...

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Shortform Exercise: Who Are Your Allies?

People are an important commodity in any conflict. Differentiating between those who provide support and those who are untrustworthy is vital if you want to gain advantages over your opponent.


Who are the people you can lean on in times of conflict?

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The Art of War Summary Chapter 13: Final Thoughts on Leadership

A good leader is a steward of survival not only for the forces they command, but also for the entire nation. Therefore, if a leader encompasses the qualities of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness, the nation will be strong. If, however, a leader is lacking in one or more of these qualities, the nation will be weak.

  • Leaders must be both loyal and capable.
  • They must be able to concoct successful strategies that are unknowable and unpredictable.
  • A good leader does what is best for their troops, as well as their nation.

There are five ways of determining which leader will be victorious during a conflict.

  1. The leader who knows when and when not to engage in battle.
  2. The leader who understands what sort of manpower is needed and when.
  3. The leader who has created harmony among the ranks.
  4. The leader who has prepared a strategy ahead of time.
  5. The leader who knows when and when not to listen to government commands.

Prowess in Leadership

Victory is formless to outsiders. The public is aware of the win but unaware of how the win manifested. Simply understanding a victory is not the same as having wisdom about how to...

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Shortform Exercise: The Art of War in the Real World

Now that you’ve read about the strategic and psychological considerations involved in successful leadership and conflict resolution, test and apply that knowledge.


Conflict is a natural part of life. What are three considerations you will take into account the next time you find yourself in conflict with an individual or organization?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Chapter 1: General Overview of Conflict
  • Exercise: Preparing for Battle
  • Chapter 2: Setting the Stage for Victory
  • Chapter 3: A Thoughtful Plan of Attack
  • Exercise: Sizing Up the Competition
  • Chapter 4: Organizing Your Forces
  • Chapter 5: Mobilizing an Attack
  • Exercise: Avoiding the Straight and Narrow in Battle
  • Chapter 6: Resilience vs. Vulnerability
  • Chapter 7: Fighting the Good Fight
  • Chapter 8: Flexibility in Leadership
  • Exercise: How Flexible Are You?
  • Chapter 9: Maneuvering with Advantage
  • Chapter 10: Land of Opportunity and Danger
  • Exercise: What Ground Are You On?
  • Chapter 11: The Use of Weapons
  • Chapter 12: Espionage At Your Disposal
  • Exercise: Who Are Your Allies?
  • Chapter 13: Final Thoughts on Leadership
  • Exercise: The Art of War in the Real World