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8 Pearls of Wisdom From Ancient China’s The Art of War

Ancient History | June 29, 2018

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been called one of the greatest works of military strategy ever written. This Chinese military handbook dates back to the 5th century BC and contains 13 chapters, each dealing with a certain aspect of war. The advice for military tactics and leadership strategies has inspired military commanders, world leaders, business CEOs, and athletic coaches, from Norman Schwarkopf to Bill Belichick to Jeff Bezos. With its pithy and memorable quotes, the words of Sun Tzu can easily be adapted and applied to all aspects of modern life. Here are 8 take-aways from The Art of War

1) “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles”

We often shorten this to just say “know your enemy”. It is all about sizing up the competition. If you can gain information about your opponent, you can use that knowledge to your advantage. In war, it may be discovering your enemy’s weakness. In sports, it may be learning the style of offense the other team uses. In business, it may be learning about the next big innovation the competitor is inventing. 

2) “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.”

Choose your battles. Some are not worth fighting and some are unwinnable. In war, sports, business management, and in life, it is worth asking yourself if the potential outcome is worth the fight. Sometimes not engaging in a battle is the swiftest way to victory. 

3) “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

This Sun Tzu quote is often summarized to say “the battle is won before it is fought.” Being well-prepared will give one the advantage over the unprepared. This is readily evident in job seekers going through the interview process. The candidate who has prepared himself or herself for the interview – anticipated interview questions, thought through their answers, studied up on the company and the industry, Googled the interviewee – will make a more favorable impression during the interview. 

4) “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

It is better to win without fighting than to engage in an unnecessary battle. The sweetest victories come when the enemy surrenders before the battle has even begun. A show of superiority may be enough to intimidate the opponent into giving up. Although The Art of War may be about fighting and warfare, the tenet is the preservation of life. 

5) “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons, and they will follow you into the deepest valley.”

Every good manager knows that if employees are treated with respect and courtesy, they will work harder for the manager and productivity will increase. Conversely, if a manager leads by bullying and intimidation, the employees will respond with mediocre work. A worker who is treated well will be a loyal employee who goes above and beyond for the manager. 

6) “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.”

Good communication is important, in war and in business…indeed, in all aspect of life. It is the responsibility of the general, or the manager, or the coach to make sure that his or her instructions are clear and thorough and easily-understood. If they are not, the leader needs to take the blame for failing to effectively communicate, instead of blaming the soldiers or employees or players for not understanding. 

7) “Management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization.”

At the very core of The Art of War are strategies for managing large groups of people, as a general would do in battle. In this Tzu quote, the great strategist is saying that, if a leader is well-organized, there is no difference in overseeing a small team and managing a large group. The basic ideas remain the same…clear communication, loyalty, respect, and a willingness to be humble. 

8) “The expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men.”

Sun Tzu believed that battles could be won based on the general’s military strategies, not solely on the might of his soldiers. If a commander has prepared for the battle and knows his enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, he can plan his troops’ movements to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. But if a commander is not strategic about his battle, and instead relies on the prowess of his men, he will incur a defeat in addition to a loss of men. In this quote, Tzu is telling his readers to work smarter, not harder, as a means of ensuring victory, on the battlefield, in the boardroom, or on the playing field. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.