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.
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 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...
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.
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.
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.
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?
In order to set the stage for victory, you need to manage both your resources and your forces wisely.
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.
Therefore, battles should be swift. Be big and bold, attacking quickly and ferociously, then retreating.
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:
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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 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.
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...
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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?
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.
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 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...
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.
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 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.
To gain advantage...
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.
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:
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?
How you maneuver your troops should be based on advantage. Be aware of the advantages and disadvantages involved in any action.
When a body of water crosses your path, the following advantageous maneuvers should be considered.
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.
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.
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.
Hung up terrain: Terrain that is easy to enter but difficult to retreat from.
Standoff terrain: Terrain that is unwelcoming to both sides, thereby creating disadvantages for both sides....
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?
Weapons are not relegated to guns, tanks, and ammunition. A weapon is any physical element that assists in battle.
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.
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.
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?
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.
There are five ways of determining which leader will be victorious during a conflict.
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...
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?