Introduction Book Excerpt

Introduction                                                                 [back to contents page]  

           Every day events occur, both close at hand and around the world, that dramatically illustrate one of the greatest challenges human beings face: finding a better way to deal with conflict and chaos. Every disaster, man-made or natural, every social or political challenge, every effort to effect change in every aspect of our lives, has these elements woven into it. And in most every situation, our failures leave us with the gnawing question: how could we have done that better?

The Art of War by Sun Tzu has long been one of the world’s primary resources for working with this challenge. It emerged as a training text for generals during the Warring States period of ancient China and went on to become the most popular leadership and strategy manual of all time, in both Asian and Western cultures. Many people view it as the property of military officers and businesspeople, thinking that it’s only about the logic of takeovers and one-upmanship, clever dealing and surprising the enemy. But the text’s insights have gained wider application. The lessons of this wisdom tradition are relevant wherever conflict arises, which, as we know, is pretty much everwhere human beings gather to live and work, from the battlefield to the conference room, from the church hall to the school yard, and even in the “quiet” of our homes.

The text’s popularity is due to the wide appeal of its central message, the oft-quoted proclamation that the leader’s highest and best skill is to attain victory without battle. It then goes on to present profound methods to show how that victory—which we translate as “taking whole”—can be won. In this, the text speaks directly to the challenges faced by every person in a leadership position who has to work with resistance and conflict when trying to get something done. In every sphere of our lives, we face the challenge of bringing about a goal in a way that doesn’t engender more conflict and chaos, thereby undermining our hard-earned accomplishment. The text’s profound strategies show us the rules of victory—how to work with our world in a deeper way to bring about victorious circumstances that render conflict unnecessary.

The Art of War has gained broad acceptance as a strategy manual for the same reasons as most things that are adopted rapidly. First of all, it is relevant: the text speaks to our emerging worldview of interconnectedness and rapid change, of limited resources and the self-defeating effects of aggressive conquest. Next, it is effective: twenty-five hundred years of use around the world confirms that it has worked for many people. Its advice to us won’t change every time the latest research findings reverse their previous position. And finally, it is reasonably easy to adopt: initially, only a slight shift in our view of the world is required for the text’s practices to become helpful in our lives.

We saw these qualities in The Art of War when we began studying it thirty years ago, brought to it by our frustration with ineffective approaches to working with conflict. Our study led to the publication of The Art of War: The Denma Translation, in which we—along with our colleagues who formed the Denma Translation Group—offered a new translation of the text, accompanied by our own commentary and essays on the text’s broad themes and perspectives. Our goal was to present an understanding of the text’s view of the world and how to work with it as common human wisdom, accessible to all and connected to our times. Our edition spoke to all the text’s users—military, business, academic, and beyond—and confirmed that this wisdom lineage was something all could participate in and learn from.

The Denma translation has gained broad acceptance and an appreciative readership. We found that people are inspired by connecting to the text’s wisdom and can understand its way of approaching the world. This success brought great enthusiasm and optimism, but it also brought more pointed questions about the text’s practical application. The Art of War is profound and rich, and places skillful action within a world that is an interconnected, whole, and complex system. The distance from the broad view to our daily lives can be great, however, and the journey to effective action can seem daunting. It became clear, then, that it would be helpful to have more guidance about how to get there from here. The Rules of Victory addresses the question that naturally arises next: how do we employ the skills of The Art of War in our lives? If uncertainty, complexity, chaos, and conflict define the new reality, then by what means can we best prepare for working with it more effectively?

This book seeks to address that next step, to help open up the profound practices in the text and render them accessible and effective. We do so in two ways. First, we deepen our understanding of the way The Art of War views the world and how effective methods and actions emerge from that view. Then we explore the text’s famous strategies for working with the phenomenal world. The Art of War’s wisdom is not remote, mystical, or foreign, and we include a range of examples and scenarios to show how these practices are common in our experience.

But if this is a text for military officers, how can this be so? How does a text that talks in terms of battle and victory, armies and enemies, also apply to me and my daily life? How can the language of war help to unravel the roots of conflict and overcome the habitual aggressive approach to getting things accomplished? It is our conviction that the principles in this text speak to everyone in a leadership position, which we define broadly as anyone who has an intention to carry out some action in his or her world. If that is so, what do all the various readers and potential users of the text’s wisdom—from military leaders to businesspeople to the person on the street to you in your life—have in common? Who is this text talking to?

The Art of War speaks to all people who accept leadership responsibility for what occurs in their world, who take action and seek change. Inevitably, taking such leadership will involve reaching a point in the campaign where others don’t want to go along; where opinions, interests, and positions differ; and where dialogue and communication need to turn into action and things tend to get messy. This experience happens to everyone with something to accomplish, and it so often leads to frustration with the habitual means of working with conflict. That includes the stay-at-home parent and the nonprofit volunteer coordinator as well as the CEO and the military commander.

Leaders can be broadly defined as those who take action when they do not want to leave things to chance. Leadership, then, involves employing strategic thinking. At its most basic level, strategic thinking is simply having a view of your goal, assessing the situation and the resources at your disposal, and then deciding how to apply these resources to achieve your goal. This happens, more or less consciously, in any leadership campaign. Whether you think of yourself as a strategist or not, once you reflect on what you want to achieve and assess the ways you might achieve it, once you consider the resources at your disposal and decide how to make use of them, once you sense that there is a better way and aspire to learn it, you have entered the realm of strategic thinking. This is a skill required to accomplish anything in the world, and The Art of War offers a way of thinking and a way of being that sharpen this skill. It is the preeminent text for anyone who thinks strategically, which pretty much includes all of us.

We recognize that it is not always easy to see how the teachings and strategies of this text relate to a given challenge in life. On one occasion, we presented our work on The Art of War in a seminar made up of university faculty. One professor was obviously struggling with the material, and at a certain point, he interrupted to complain that he just couldn’t connect to the text. He argued that the whole notion of war, battle, and enemy was contradictory to the basic philosophy of higher education. “I don’t understand how this relates to my work in the creative writing department.” He added that this approach to strategic thinking felt overwrought with self-conscious manipulation and that he wasn’t comfortable thinking about leadership in these terms. As we were framing a reply, one of the other professors responded with a simple description of her experience of the many challenges involved in navigating departmental and university-wide politics, with its vast number of ever-conflicting viewpoints passionately argued for. Her comments produced an “aha” moment for the writing professor that fueled the conversation for the rest of the afternoon.

We are all leaders in our own sphere, and inevitably we will be compelled or inspired to take action. As we do so, we will encounter the practical realities of resources and people, which will give rise to resistance, obstacles, and challenges. We will need all the skills and faculties at our disposal to successfully negotiate these difficult times. This is the task of the sage commander, the military leader addressed by The Art of War. We all face the same challenges as the sage commander, and the principles within the wisdom lineage represented by these teachings apply equally to our sphere of leadership.

As we explore the teachings of The Art of War, we are working with a text that is short, condensed, and profound. It presents a remarkably consistent vision, but it is expressed in an often circular and ungraspable way—offering equal doses of frustration and inspiration. No book about this text can explore the whole of it or presume to be definitive. Our goal is much simpler: to create a way the modern reader can access the text—to get inside of it, so to speak—and to make an ongoing relationship that renders its skillful methods applicable in any domain. Based on our experience, we are confident that as you familiarize yourself more and more with the principles and strategies of the text, you will find opportunities to apply them appearing in all areas of your life. This occurs most readily when the deep-seated grasping for easy fixes is frustrated and you are prepared to go beyond the familiar (and usually unsuccessful) habit patterns.

The Art of War is different from approaches that prescribe very specific actions and support their arguments with historical examples. It functions more as a kind of training that seeks to change your view. As a result, it doesn’t lead simply to a new way of doing things but rather to a new way of being. And out of this new way of being, new practices emerge, which give rise to more effective action. The Art of War is not a separate “system” of working with conflict but an orientation of mind and view that can enrich your effectiveness in whatever realm you work in.

The Rules of Victory attempts to go along with the pattern of the text. We do not present a linear argument to convince you of the effectiveness of the text’s strategies. Rather, we offer an interconnected series of insights intended to spark and deepen your understanding of the text. This is a practical book, not a philosophical treatise on the nature of reality. It’s about how to get things done successfully and without lots of fallout to deal with. It’s about, in our experience, how the text seems to work in general and how it might work for you.

This is not a book about stunning breakthroughs and the latest research, but more about how old ideas can turn out to be cutting-edge. It will work by connecting dots for you and exploring some of the roots and antecedents of ideas currently in vogue. For example, learning about the central strategies in The Art of War will give you a deeper and very helpful perspective on the recently popularized concept of “the tipping point.” The wisdom tradition of this text has never been about presenting a radical new thing; it has always been about discovering things that are right under your nose and investigating them deeply.

The Rules of Victory is not about an external set of guidelines that we must follow slavishly to attain our objectives. The rules in this sense refer rather to the underlying logic and energy of a situation, which we can work with directly to bring about our desired result. The word rule comes from the latin root reg-, originally meaning a piece of wood or rod used to mark a straight line. It then came to mean something used as a guide, hence that which is right or correct. Rules convey the sense of the governing power, what gives authority for conduct. We “follow rules” all the time in simple ways to our advantage, like when we exploit the force of gravity to ride a sled downhill. The rules of victory are about how to know and work with the natural patterns of how things go throughout our lives, and in the difficult situations we encounter.

It will be helpful to mention here a few of the conventions employed in our work. We have chosen, for example, not to use an English word for the Chinese word shih (pronounced “shir,” with almost no vowel sound). Shih is the central concept in our discussion of the profound methods in the text, and a concept we believe could add

great value if adopted more broadly in Western strategic thinking. We know that using the Chinese word creates a barrier to easy adoption. But doing so also prevents this important concept from being too easily integrated into your existing framework and thus avoids the risk of having its broader meaning diminished and its subtler meanings lost. The effort to understand shih and integrate it into effective use will help to make the concept genuinely your own. All deep learning goes through such a phase of discomfort. In our work with the text, we have witnessed how this process makes the study of the text richer and more rewarding.

Also, you will notice that, following long-established convention, we refer to the text as “the Sun Tzu,” “the text,” and “The Art of War” rather than using constructions such as “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” that refer to Sun Tzu as a historical person. In part, that’s because scholars and historians have no certainty that such a single, historical individual with that name actually existed. Beyond that, we feel that this text represents a lineage of wisdom, including human beings such as ourselves in history who have studied, learned, and contributed to the understanding. In referring to the text as the property of such a lineage, we establish the ground for you to enter this lineage and make the text your own.

The Rules of Victory starts with a review of what you need to know about the Sun Tzu text and tradition, and our approach to it. Here we give an overview of the key points we presented in our first book in order to bring readers new and old to the same ground of understanding the text and its tradition. Those who have read our first book will find that this book goes much more deeply into both the profundity and the practical application of the themes introduced there.

The Rules of Victory also serves as an excellent introduction to the Sun Tzu for those readers new to it. We present the entire text in the back of this volume as a handy reference. Those of you new to the text will benefit from taking the time to read through it, perhaps both before and after reading the first chapter. Whether you are new to The Art of War or a seasoned student, reading through the text helps develop a familiarity with the lines as they appear throughout our discussion.

Next, we present the pith instructions to the general about how to lead that appear on the very first page of the text: the traditional Chinese triad that we render as heaven, earth, and the general. In order to expand our understanding of this triad and apply it in our study of the text, we talk about it in terms of view, practice, and action, the three-part framework that we use throughout this book to bring the reader to an intimate, insider’s view of the text. This framework is an excellent way to study and deconstruct the text because it ensures that we maintain respect for the text’s wholeness and integrity. View, practice, and action is a framework that can present a holistic picture of any activity in the world. For example, the view of Western medicine, in general, is to cure the sick and do no harm; the practice is the prescribing of medicines, surgery, and other therapies; and the action is all of the instances where a doctor treats a patient. View, practice, and action is not an external tool so much as a way of thinking that tunes our minds in to the way the text works and views the world. It is helpful, then, to take some time to understand this framework. Thinking this way helps us enter the text at a deeper level and also provides us with a framework that can be helpful when applied to any aspect of our lives.

We then proceed to elaborate on what makes up the view, practice, and action of the Sun Tzu. In presenting the view, we expand on how the text sees the world as whole, interconnected, and ever-changing; the importance of knowing about ourselves and the world; and how all that leads to a victory we call “taking whole.”

In the two chapters that make up the central section, we present the text’s practices, what we refer to as the profound methods of the Sun Tzu: ways of working with the world that arise from the view and are so effective when facing the inevitable challenge of chaos and conflict. Shih is the theme here. Employing shih is the way the text shows us how to work with a part of the whole, interconnected, world—an environment, a sphere of endeavor, a workplace, a relationship—and effect change at a deep level either in a single act or over a sustained campaign. Employing shih comes in many forms, and we elaborate three: extraordinary and orthodox, forming and transforming, and deception. In so doing, we both illuminate these three practices and establish a pattern of understanding that can then be applied to the other practices presented in the text.

What naturally follows is our discussion of action. Here, rather than try to advise you about what specifically to do in a given situation, in the manner of a recipe book, we present stories of inspired and effective action. Just as with ancient commentaries, lines from the text are coupled with these contemporary stories to demonstrate how people’s actions apply the Sun Tzu view and practices to the challenges in their lives. Such stories display the relevance of the text and will help to inspire your own actions. We end with some suggestions—including a basic approach to study as well as specific exercises—that will help you deepen your study and make this wisdom helpful in your life on an ongoing basis.

The Sun Tzu is about training for extreme times, for times of warfare when unique measures are required. It takes hard work to be prepared to respond with effective action in those times. When challenging circumstances are upon us, the difficult conditions have already been established, and there is seldom time to consult the manual. Studying The Art of War allows a certain way of seeing—and being—to seep into our minds. It reorients our view in such a way that unique, surprising, and skillful actions arise for us at times of extreme conditions.

For our study of this wisdom text to be fruitful, it has to become more than just picking up another set of tools, another way to separate ourselves from the interconnected world, create special territory for ourselves, and gain power over others. There is too much at stake. Accumulating another set of tools may well be helpful, but that in itself won’t lead to actions skillful and effective enough to deal with the ubiquitous violence and aggression plaguing our world. Carving out a special place for ourselves and aggressively defending it won’t work as the world gets smaller and smaller. The Art of War starts from the point of view that conflict, chaos, and aggression are unavoidable aspects of life, but it offers a way to engage and work with them creatively—and effectively.

The Sun Tzu offers real and practical answers to the questions readers bring to it, but it’s more than just new tools or techniques. While the Sun Tzu is very practical, it is not simplistic in the sense of taking shortcuts, compromising our principles, and being expedient. The Sun Tzu’s practicality relies on our ability to reflect on where we are in the world and how the world really works. It is practicality that relies on deep insight. The Sun Tzu counsels the general not to attack a heavily fortified position head-on and not to repeat the same form of attack that has failed numerous times before.


Rather, the general should await the enemy’s vulnerable, open moment and move in quickly when it arises. How is this advice any less practical for us when dealing with an intransigent colleague at work or when pleading with an uncooperative teenager at home? The practices from this wisdom text work skillfully in all these situations.

We know from our work that many people come to the Sun Tzu looking for a better way to deal with conflict, often out of frustration with the shortcomings of other ways they’ve tried or observed. The Sun Tzu often makes an immediate impact by offering a change in how to view the world that opens endless possibilities for skillfulness. However, we know as well that the text—and its profound practices that we present here—can also frustrate readers, especially those looking for a quick solution or an easy mastery of the text. In our experience, it’s like learning a foreign language, where the frustration of building up a vocabulary and conjugating verbs one day dissolves as you speak a whole sentence without first translating each word in your head. Patience, gentle exertion, openness, and a relaxation of the urge to grasp for the answers allow deep learning to occur.

The Rules of Victory seeks to make the wisdom of this text available in all areas of life, to speak about the text in a language that is as meaningful to the day-care supervisor and the AIDS worker as it is to the entrepreneur and the military officer. These profound practices need to be accessible to all and meaningful to each in his or her realm. Whether you are an experienced Art of War reader or completely new to the text, you will find a language and an approach here that make the pathways to enter this wisdom lineage broader and more accessible. This wisdom is not something foreign or external to you.

The Sun Tzu is a profound, systematic way of talking about and seeing the world. It offers a strategic skill set uniquely designed to be most effective in the very kind of times we live in: changing, chaotic, complex, and challenging. It is available now to all who seek a more creative and skillful approach to the challenges they encounter, who aspire to transform the conflict and chaos in their lives, and who want to gain the deeper authority for their strategic actions that arise from “going with” the wisdom of The Art of War, the rules of victory.

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