The Art of War goes to some rhetorical extremes when talking about discipline and obedience. A lot of the time, based on The Art of War, man has become a herd of mindless machines, and while we understand human beings can not be turned into automatons. Even today, when we want smart and creative officers and managers, we still start with basic military training that involves intensive discipline and emphasis on order. The same applies to many (all) corporations when training managers.
So the superior general, also known as the clever combatant, or literally, he who excels with uses of the military, that Sunzian leader, possess these 5 characteristics of command, but as with many things in The Art of War, there is an elegant duality. All five virtues of the general have counter-veiling vices (which is enumerated in Chapter 8). A general who has a death wish, well he can be killed, but a general who fears death, well, he can be captured, a general who is rash and quick to anger can be insulted, a commander who obsesses over his reputation can be embarrassed, and a leader who cares too much about the safety of his own people can be troubled.
Remember that this book is creating a new standard of leadership. Success or failure of an organization depends on the quality of leadership. Thus, a leader’s vices are not just a personal foibles, they have far reaching implications. Adversaries can use these to disrupt an entire organization. It’s difficult to talk about command without talking about method. In fact, if there is one thing you can take away from this book, it is that none of the core concepts in The Art of War can be treated in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, a part of a system of systems.
What are the elements of that Chinese word fǎ, that is translated into Method? More specifically, what are the methods of the bīngfǎ, the military methods? As we have seen, the rapid expansion of armies in Ancient China meant that the hereditary warrior aristocracy with their chariots and longbows was being supplanted by conscript infantry, armed with mass produced edged weapons, and later, crossbows. The Chinese word for general is Jiang ( 将 ), it is literally a hand grasping something. Traditionally, war meant a little more than grasping the reigns of the lead chariot, so a general was the guy who leads a chariot army into battle. But the Art of War reimagines command as something very different.
Master Sun’s general is not the best warrior, but rather the best organizer. Because of his organizational skill, he is no longer just the guy holding onto the reigns of a single chariot, now he has the ability to wield the entire military organization like a single weapon. As a result, the personal qualities, the general, his intelligence, courage, sincerity, they will all amount to nothing if he does not have a sharp and responsive military instrument in his hands. To create that sharp and responsive weapon, The Art of War lays out very stringent methods of discipline and organization. Essentially, Method in The Art of War is the process by which a mass of ignorant farm boys is transformed into an infinitely responsive military force – or to put it differently, methods are what allows the general to lead 10,000 men as easily as he would lead a single man by the hand. In any case, I would like to point out, in my reading anyways. I would like to identify the four key elements of the bing-fa, the military method.
The first is Organization, think about the organization of the Roman Army. It was made up of legions, and each legion was divided into ten cohorts, whom which was divided into several centuries, and each century consisted of ten eight-man squads. So the Legion was a way of breaking down the massive humanity into manageable units and regimented organization. But because this was standardized and modular, it also made the whole organization flexible. The legions also have specialized auxillaries – things like cavalry, artillery, and engineers. They could operate independently or in a coordinated fashion with the main line of the legions.
The second factor is, Wáng Dào ( 王道 ) – literally ‘The Way of the King’. This refers to both the command structure and to the specifics of staffing decisions of the commander. Organizations start the process of creating the right tool for the job, the Wáng Dào, makes sure the right people are in the right positions to optimize the strengths of the organizations. We see at the end of chapter 3, that at the end of the three misfortunes a ruler can put upon his own military, the second on that list is interfering in personal and administrative decisions. Want an example? Donald Trump.
The third element is a subject that every military professional and veteran in the business world will understand. Logistics. The dramatic expansion in logistics was critical in the evolution of warfare that took place in Ancient China. In fact, a lot of the second chapter is devoted to the issues of finance and supply. Not surprising for a book that was trying to explode heroic notions of command about war and command. We are constantly beat over the head with mundane finances and balance sheets of war. In war, the side with the longer purse, the side best able to maintain itself, is probably going to win. But The Art of War throws a wrinkle into logistics. You get your arms, your armor, and the first ration of food from your own storehouse(s) but subsequent food supplies should be taken from the enemy. This simplifies your supply chain and has the added benefit of magnifying the material stresses on your competition.
Finally… Communications. Logistics is all about maintaining lines of communications. The clarity and precision of orders and regulations, well that’s another form of communications. Espionage is a critical means of gaining knowledge of the competition and communicating deceptive misinformation to the competition. The commander may also be directly communicating with the adversary – he may send an emissary to parlay. In this context, the general must be sensitive to nuances of the words and actions of the emissary. If their meek and obsequious they are probably planning something. If they talk tough and bluster, well they are probably afraid.