Page by Page, Chapter by Chapter and Screen by Screen
This is an ancient text of war dating back to the 5th century, first translated into a Western language in French in 1772 with an English language version not coming until 1905. With English versions being only 214 years old – it is also the first book where my page-by-page review was actually done screen-by-screen on a Kindle.
This book exists in a ‘Goldratt-Perfect‘ universe. There is a clear goal – the winning of a war. The future generals to whom Sun Tzu writes have clarity of their goal, and his guidance is about how to create victory. Sun Tzu’s guidance falls in to several main categories:
- Focus on victory.
- Know your capabilities and the capabilities of your opposition.
- If allies are important – know their capabilities and motives too.
- Invest energy and time in coordination – this broadens your capabilities.
- Avoid losing – and when needed do what it takes to win.
The single best quote comes from Chapter 3, Attack by Stratagem:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 191/840 Chapter 3
Know what you are capable of – and what you are not capable of. Know the same of those around you. Strategy is the result of this knowledge. Tactics are your ability to act in coordination to make use of this knowledge.
But who is the person that you are trying to know? Sun Tzu also prescribes morality and ethics as fundamental to the success of any leader, as well as process and persistence:
“16. The consummate leader cultivates the Moral Law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.” Chapter 2
“Thereupon Sun Tzu said: “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”” Location 55
Those in power are not necessarily those who understand how to act with power.
“25. Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.” Location 105
Preparation can lead to victory, a lack of preparation will certainly lead to defeat.
The point of war is to win the war.
“6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” Loc 122
Violence is rarely the right answer, and even when it is – it should be used aggressively to bring itself to a halt. If you’re in a fight – win the fight. Don’t build a country – or a life – that depends on being in a state of prolonged warfare and battle.
“18. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” Loc 142
In Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, the book is oriented around the metaphor of an invasion fleet. If you’re in a battle – win the battle. If you stretch out the battle, let that be for the purpose of winning.
Strategy flows naturally from knowing the capabilities of your army and that of your opponent.
“19. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 191/840
Strategy is the logical outcome of self-study, self-mastery and observation of your opponent.
Tactics flow logically when strength is accumulated. Do not put yourself in position to be defeated.
“14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.” Screen 202
“15. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” Screen 202
Put your energy towards creating strength. Strength comes from coordination and action.
“2. Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.” Location 225
“21. The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and to utilise combined energy.” Location 256
Find the weak points and exploit them.
“2. Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” Location 268
“30. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” Location 323
Moves cannot be retracted – and they require energy. Move to weak points where your strength is superior. Communicate clearly and coordinate your actions.
“5. Manœuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.” Screen 332
“21 Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” Screen 332
“23 On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough:” Screen 332
“36 When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” Screen 336
Only 14 points are made in this chapter and it is made up of few pages, screens and swipes. Sun Tzu builds on his biggest points from earlier chapters – Strategy is the logical outcome of knowing your strengths and your opponents weaknesses. Your goal is to win, but to do so you must not lose.
“2. … Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.”
These quotes – two of the last ones in the chapter – touch on leadership through hard tasks.
“43 Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”
“45 If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.”
Chapter 10 has a great example of enumeration of options – something Sun Tzu does several times.
“When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.”
“18. Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”
Nevermind the nine varieties of ground – use it as an input, but the goal is to create the actions you want to create victory. Hold what you can that the enemy values.
“22. …Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. “
Creation comes from focus.
“32 The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”
Standards make life easier. Standards make groups function better. Clearly written standards and expectations are at the core of open societies. Writing and implementing the right standards is critical skill of leadership.
Sun Tzu has survived because of its brevity and universal appeal. If I can only pick one quote – when only four were selected from this chapter, then my top choice is below. If you want to move – then do so. If it isn’t to your advantage, then sit still.
“19 If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”
If you’re going to make use of natural forces – then there are good times and bad to do so. Know if the times are primed for other forces outside your control to come to your assistance.
“3 There is a proper season for making attacks with fire, and special days for starting a conflagration.”
In the final chapter Sun Tzu tells how spies – those that provide data and insight about the capabilities of the opposition – are to be used to win battles. Spies can be used to avoid battles that do not need to be fought, or as called out in Attack by Stratagem:
“3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.”
“6 Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”
There is no artificial method of knowing the disposition of an enemy. Reports do not cut it. Impressions do not cut it. Analysis does not cut it – dispositions can only be known by on the ground analysis.
“27 Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”
If the goal of war is to win battles that must be fought – then use of data and intelligence to prevent battles from being fought is a noble purpose.