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Sun Tzu on War and Being a Leader

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8 months ago

Sun Tzu said:



“Warfare is the greatest affair of the state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed. Therefore, structure it according to the following five factors, evaluate it comparatively through estimations, and seek out its true nature. The first is termed the Tao, the second Heaven, the third Earth, the fourth generals, and the fifth the laws.

The Tao causes people to be fully in accord with the ruler. Thus they will die with him; they will live with him and not fear danger.

Heaven encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons.

Earth encompasses far or near, difficult or easy, expansive or confined, fatal or tenable terrain.

The general encompasses wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, and strictness.

The laws encompass organization and regulations, the Tao of command, and the management of logistics.

There are no generals who have not heard of these five. Those who understand them will be victorious; those who do not understand them will not be victorious.


What motivates men to slay the enemy is anger; what stimulates them to seize profits from the enemy is material goods. This in chariot encounters, when ten or more chariots are captured, reward the first the first to get one. Change their flags and pennants to ours; intermix and employ them with our own chariots. Treat the captured soldiers well in order to nurture them for our use. This is referred to as conquering the enemy and growing stronger.


The army values being victorious; it does not value prolonged warfare. Therefore, a general who understands warfare is Master of Fate for the people, ruler of the state’s security or endangerment.


For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.


Thus there are five factors from which victory can be known:

One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious.

One who recognizes how to employ large and small numbers will be victorious.

One whose upper and lower ranks have the same desires will be victorious.

One who, fully prepared awaits the unprepared will be victorious.

One whose general is capable and not interfered with by the ruler will be victorious.

These five are the Way (Tao) to know victory.


One who excels at warfare first establishes himself in a position where he cannot be defeated while not losing any opportunity to defeat the enemy. For this reason, the victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle. The vanquished army fights first, and then seeks victory.


One who excels at warfare seeks victory through the strategic configuration of power, not from reliance on men. Thus he is able to select men and employ strategic power.


When you plunder a district, divide the wealth among your troops. When you enlarge your territory, divide the profits. Take control of the strategic balance of power and move. The one who first understands the tactics of the circuitous and the direct will be victorious. This is the strategy for military combat.


Thus if you command them with the civil and unify them through the martial, this is what is referred to as being certain to take them.


If orders are consistently implemented to instruct the people, then the people will submit. If orders are not consistently implemented to instruct the people, then the people will not submit. One whose orders are consistently carried out has established a mutual relationship with the people.


If the Tao of Warfare indicates certain victory, even though the ruler has instructed that combat should be avoided, if you must engage in battle it is permissible. If the Tao of Warfare indicates you will not be victorious, even though the ruler instructs you to engage in battle, not fighting is permissible. Thus a general who does not advance to seek fame, nor fail to retreat to avoid being charged with the capital offense of retreating, but seeks only to preserve the people and gain advantage for the ruler is the state’s treasure.


When the general regards his troops as young children, they will advance into the deepest valleys with him. When he regards the troops as his beloved children, they will be willing to die with him. If they are well treated but cannot be employed, if they are loved but cannot be commanded, or when in chaos they cannot be governed, they may be compared to arrogant children and cannot be used.


It is the nature of the army to stress speed; to take advantage of the enemy’s absence; to travel unanticipated roads; and to attack when they are not alert."

Latent Thoughts #16







Painting: The Surrender of Breda by pelazquez

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