When I was in the army one of the books we were required to study was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Together with General Clausewitz’s On War, they had much of interest to say on the principles of warfare and the art of commanding men.

I can say now, that I was much more interested in the art of commanding men, than I was in the principles of warfare, and so I found Sun Tzu quite fascinating to study. About 2001 (I can’t quite remember the exact date) Gerald Michaelson published a book based on Sun Tzu, called The Art of War for Managers, which caused quite a stir at the time.

However one may view the role of a manager, linking it to a seminal work on warfare seems to be taking it one step too far; and yet the principles that Sun Tzu raised are still valid as leadership values today. He had some strong views on what made a great commander – or General, in his terms. He claimed that strong leaders should “Obey the Laws of Leadership” – failure to do so would inevitably bring about defeat.

So what are the six principles of Leadership as espoused by Sun Tzu?

“There are six situations that cause an army to fail. They are; flight, insubordination, fall, collapse, disorganisation and route. None of these disasters can be attributed to natural and geographical causes, but the fault of the general.”

In other words, winning is the responsibility of the leader.

He has some tart words about leadership in group situations too:

Terrain conditions being equal, if a force attacks one ten times its size, the result is flight.”

This principle is easy to understand and I think universal. If you knowingly take on a strong opponent, without having an advantage on your side, then you are heading for failure. That has to be common sense, and yet it is often overlooked in strategies that have more to do with wishful thinking than with reality.

“When the soldiers are strong and officers weak, the army is insubordinate”

Within a group situation, and where leadership is essential, there has to be an element of discipline. But a leader has to be confident in their own abilities; if not they will be held to be of little account. Where the rank and file hold the power without the benefit of clear leadership, the strategic aims may not be met. However:

“When the officers are valiant and the soldiers ineffective, the army will fall.”

In war, no matter how valiant the commanders are, it is in reality the man on the ground that has to perform effectively. There is an old poem often recited by gnarled old Warrant Officers (Yes Jock, that’s you!) which goes something like ”the ground is not won ‘til the man with the gun stands on it” So commanders intending to succeed spend an awful lot of time in training. Before committing the Eighth Army to the Battle of El Alamein Montgomery spent months in training his troops; in fact he threatened to resign if he was ordered to attack before he deemed they were ready – he knew his Sun Tzu!

“When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on encountering the enemy rush to battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment and the commander in chief is ignorant of their abilities, the result is collapse.”

In simple terms, while it seems like it’s every one for themselves in a battle situation, in truth each soldier works to an overall plan. Each and every action must support and further the main plan. Individual actions which do not, no matter how heroic, can actually be counterproductive. The battle plan requires team work, and unity; without it the whole plan can collapse.

“When the General is incompetent and has little authority, when his troops are mismanaged, when the relationship between the officers and men is strained, and when the troop formations are slovenly, the result is disorganisation”

The art of man-management goes back thousands of years. Sun Tzu knew that only with a strong sense of trust between the leaders and the soldiers, with programmes in place to support and succour the troops, and with discipline and good order could success be guaranteed. By instilling a sense of pride in the organisation and recognition of achievement a good leader will ensure that he has real commitment from those in his team. And finally

“When a General unable to estimate the enemy’s strength uses a small force to engage a larger one, or weak troops to strike the strong, of fails to select shock troops for the van, the result is rout.”

It is important that we use the right people for the right tasks. Each member of our team has strengths as well as weaknesses, and if we work with the strengths and seek to improve the weaknesses we create a strong team able to succeed in any situation.

So Sun Tzu has some great ideas about leadership, and these are principles which we can utilise today; because he knew that at the base of every organisation there are people. People that have needs as well as goals; and he recognised that a truly great leader addressed both the strategic and tactical planning, but also had a care for the welfare of his troops.

And centuries later, there is still a lesson in all that for us too.

Michele @ Trischel

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