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Sun Tzu is arguably the greatest war leader and strategist who ever lived. His philosophy on leadership and conflict management has been used for centuries not only in wars but also in modern life.
Through his masterpiece, The Art of War, Sun Tzu imparted important military strategies that extend beyond war and into fields such as management, business, politics, and sports.
Very little is known about Sun Tzu’s early life. Historians believe that he was born as Sun Wu in a city called Qi during the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China (approximately in 544 BCE). He is believed to be a son of aristocrat parents but further details about his family life, childhood, education, and military beginnings remain shrouded in mystery.
Sun Tzu lived during the Age of Warring States, a tumultuous time of great conflict between seven states that fought for ascendancy and control of China. It was during this time that the states sought men with knowledge on leadership and strategy to help them gain the upper hand in war.
Rise To The Ranks
One of the seven warring states was ruled by King He-Lu of Wu. Among his army of mercenary soldiers was a young Sun Tzu, who showed strong interest in military tactics.
His intelligence and unconventional strategies related to ambush and espionage set him apart from other soldiers. Soon enough, Sun Tzu saw himself propelled to one of the highest positions in the military.
One of the most popular stories about Sun Tzu happened when King He-Lu learned about the promising general and put him to the test. The King wanted to learn about Sun Tzu’s war techniques and asked the latter to demonstrate his abilities before hiring him to be his war strategist.
Legend has it that the King conducted a mock military drill where Sun Tzu was tasked to command and train an army. But instead of soldiers, the army was composed of almost 200 royal concubines and maids who were witnessing the drill.
Sun Tzu divided the troops into two, both led by the King’s favorite consorts. Upon giving them a command, the women burst into laughter and amusement. Such reaction earned the general’s wrath and ordered the two women to be executed immediately.
Fearing the loss of his favorite consorts from a mock drill, King He-Lu pleaded that the general spare their lives. However, Sun Tzu remained firm and emphasized that success in the battlefield depends on the absolute obedience of the troops.
The two women were publicly beheaded – a strong message to the Wu military that disobedience is intolerable and has no place in the army. Despite losing his beloved consorts, King He-Lu appointed Sun Tzu as the Commander-in-Chief of his kingdom.
As the brain of the army, Sun Tzu formulated his own theories and strategies about warfare. He went on to lead King He-Lu’s kingdom to many victories against more powerful states.
Legacy: The Art of War
Sun Tzu spent the better part of his life on countless battlefields. His experience and observations helped him devise and execute war strategies perfectly. After retiring from active service, he served as a military adviser to King He-Lu and his successor.
Later on, when wars between kingdoms dwindled down, Sun Tzu passed on his wisdom through a manuscript called “The Art of War”. It deals with the philosophy and psychology of war: strategies that would injure the morale of the enemy while building the confidence of one’s own army. It also discusses the ideal qualities of a ruler, military commander, and soldier in the face of battle that are vital to achieving success.
“The Art of War” has shaped military thinkers over the past two millenniums. It is believed that the Samurai of ancient Japan honored the teachings of the book and used it to push for the unification of Japan.
In France, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte used it in their war against other European nations. In more recent events, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong acknowledged Sun Tzu’s influence on his victory in the Chinese Civil War of 1949. It also continues to be an important text in military schools in countries such as Vietnam, Russia, and the United States.
Beyond war, Sun Tzu’s principles prove to be effective in the world of management, business, politics, and even sports. Like in warfare, these fields thrive in competition. It is a battle of wills.
It is a contest where success depends on the effective and efficient use of resources. It is all about the element of surprise, deception, movements, maneuvers, and gaining an advantage over the opponent.
Sun Tzu is believed to have died in 496 BCE. His lifework changed the rules of warfare and continues to impact the modern world.
Here are 30 of the most genius lessons from “The Art of War”:
Sun Tzu Quotes
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” – Sun Tzu
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu
“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” – Sun Tzu
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” – Sun Tzu
“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” – Sun Tzu
“Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” – Sun Tzu
“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” – Sun Tzu
“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.” – Sun Tzu
“It is easy to love your friend, but sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is to love your enemy.” – Sun Tzu
“There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.” – Sun Tzu
“Thus the expert in battle moves the enemy, and is not moved by him.” – Sun Tzu
“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” – Sun Tzu
“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” – Sun Tzu
“Rewards for good service should not be deferred a single day.” – Sun Tzu
“Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.” – Sun Tzu
“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” – Sun Tzu
“Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.” – Sun Tzu
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” – Sun Tzu
“The wise warrior avoids the battle.” – Sun Tzu
“Bravery without forethought, causes a man to fight blindly and desperately like a mad bull. Such an opponent, must not be encountered with brute force, but may be lured into an ambush and slain.” – Sun Tzu
“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” – Sun Tzu
“If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, then will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be unless.” – Sun Tzu
“If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.” – Sun Tzu
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu
“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.” – Sun Tzu
“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” – Sun Tzu
“Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.” – Sun Tzu
“One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.” – Sun Tzu
“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.” – Sun Tzu
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” – Sun Tzu