Sun Tzu’s Five Factors of Successful Military Action

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What are Sun Tzu’s teachings about attaining victory? Can you really win a war without fighting?

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 factors of successful military operations: the Way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline. Sun Tzu’s five factors can help you assess the likelihood of victory in any circumstance.

Let’s consider each in turn.

The 5 Traits of Successful Military Action

Sun Tzu’s five factors of successful military action are 1) the Way, 2) the weather, 3) the terrain, 4) the leadership, and 5) discipline.

You should consider how these five factors 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 factors, you will be able to assess the likelihood of victory in any circumstance. If victory is not certain, you should not engage in conflict. 

  1. 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 compliance when rules and commands are valid and well-articulated
  • You foster respect and harmony among your subordinates when the varied roles within the rank hierarchy are articulated clearly and managed justly. 
  • Subordinates and superiors stand together under the same cause and are courageous in defending it when the Way is strong among the troops.

2. The Weather regards the appropriate season for battle. Leading a surge or entering a conflict in winter and summer can create unfavorable natural circumstances. Severe weather, such as blizzards or droughts, can stymie your troops through illness, other weather-related maladies, and depletion. Supplies can be compromised in inclement weather, as well.  

3. The Terrain can be understood as “the lay of the land.” Geographical factors to consider include distance to be traversed, type of terrain and accompanying effort required to cross it, land size, and degrees of security or harm encompassed in the environment.  

  • Once these elements are known, you can accurately determine the best strategies to approach the land

4. The Leadership relates to the constitution of leaders and how it affects their ability to command successfully. A good leader should display the combined qualities of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness. 

  • Depending on one quality over another or dismissing one completely creates a broken link in the leader’s ability to be effective. 

5. Discipline means the level of structure and organization within the ranks. How troops and officials are organized is as important as material preparations, such as supplies and weapons, for the success of military action.

  • Both soldiers and leaders need to be disciplined in their training
  • If either is not prepared sufficiently, fear and confusion on the battlefield are likely. 
Sun Tzu’s Five Factors of Successful Military Action

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  • How to mislead your enemies to win the war
  • Classic examples from Chinese history to illustrate Sun Tzu's strategies
  • How to use spies to gather information and defeat your opponents

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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