The Five Virtues of a Commander

By the 4th century BC, the entire purpose of this military institution had become putting, tens of thousand, if not 100s of thousands of men in the field, fed, armed, and armored. What had once been an affair of highly ritualized battles of a few thousand men, had turned into the greatest affair of the state, a contest of mass infantry army supported by elaborate and expensive logistical systems. This required a re-imagining of Command and Method.

Both terms are introduced in Chapter 1, where the Art of War lays out the process of gauging the strengths and weakness of competitors. This assessment comes down to five fundamental characteristics of the state, or by extension, of the organizations. The first is how Morally cohesive is the state, the second is its Environmental conditions (its climate), the third is Terrain (or geography), but the 4th and 5th are Command and Method. Command and Method represent both potential strengths and weaknesses of a state or organization.

In chapter one, we see a list of 5 qualities of the commander, the five virtues. What are the key components of effective command? Wisdom, Sincerity, Benevolence, Courage, and Discipline. I wrote about Benelovence last time and pointed that it has a very distinct meaning in this book, simply put, it means serving a greater good; the survival and prosperity of the state; serving that than the personal ambitions of the general. But what about the other 4 qualities? I don’t think it is a coincidence that Wisdom is the head of the list. Which also translates into intellect. The Art of War puts a premium on the cognitive and computational skills of the commander. After all, the first discussion of command comes in the middle of the chapter of Assessments.

It is the general – the commander – who bears responsibility first for, assessing the strength and weakness of each side (in that looming conflict), and second, it’s his job to manipulate the scales to maximize his competitive advantage. Remember that Ancient China was a superstitious space, and the people tended to think their fate landed on the Gods, so their prep for the battle would involve some form of divination, in other words, to ask the gods who were going to win. Instead, The Art of War mocks that tradition of divination, and instead, it argues the outcome of the battle rests not with the gods, but with men, and specifically with men who can weigh and manipulate the scales of victory, by effective use of their intellect.

The next quality of the commander is Sincerity. That’s sort of counter-intuitive, right? It seems very out of place in a book that emphasizes on deception, and flat out dishonesty. But we need to look at this as Sincerity and Credibility; the way a commander runs his operations. Policies and Regulations once implemented, must be followed to the letter. Think about uneven application of standards can affect your workplace, or if you are a parent, think about important consistency is, when dealing with your kids. If a leader is inconsistent is insincere, he or she will lose credibility with the rank and file.

The fourth quality of a commander is Courage. This is not physical courage, after all, the Sunzian General doesn’t lead from the front, but rather, orchestrates the battle from the relative safety of his command tower. Courage here is more moral courage; steadfast in decision making; overrule the ruler – the sovereign; to perhaps choose an unpopular course of action, when the consequences of the more popular choice could be dire.

Finally, fifth, we have discipline, or rather, strictness. This is both personal and organizational meaning. The leader must be personally strict and discipline in his bearing. It prevents the general from showing any kind of weakness that can be exploited. Strictly holding your council, strictly holding your tongue will prevent any word of your plans from leaking out to foe and friend alike.

So, the general is both a processor of information and a source of information. Wisdom allows you to know the enemy, Discipline prevents the enemy from knowing you. At the organizational level, discipline is related to that other concept Sincerity – strictness and credibility when dealing with subordinates create a more disciplined and responsive organization. The credible articulation of standards must be paired with their strict and disciplined implementation.

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