You have probably heard of the Chinese classic The Art of War, the basic ideas of the work being attributed to an ancient Chinese general, strategist, and counselor name Sun Zi (Master Sun) during the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history (approximately 771 to 476 BC). The work is a part of the Daoist (Taoist) tradition of philosophy, remarkable for its short but profound understanding of not just war, but of the nature of human relationships and power. In the opening section, he lists five characteristics of a general, but says little else directly about the subject. However, the application of those five characteristics can be seen throughout the rest of his short work. Over the centuries, Chinese ruling elite studied, commented upon, and followed the principles in The Art of War, influencing many other strategists and thinkers from Asian and then other nations. The quote above, from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) commentator, illustrates the Daoist philosophy of balance. Too much or too little of any one of the five characteristics is flawed and ineffective.
An example of the Daoist influence on the work can be seen in the first in the list of leadership characteristics—intelligence, or wisdom. The wisdom or intelligence of a leader is demonstrated in one who can anticipate events through deep thought and comprehension. The ultimate measure of success of a leader-general is one who wins victory but does so by avoiding conflict altogether. In the first section, Sun Zi declares, “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” This idea expands on the concepts in the Daoist work The Book of Balance and Harmony, which describes intelligence or wisdom as such:
Deep knowledge is to be aware of disturbance before disturbance, to be aware of danger before danger, to be aware of destruction before destruction, to be aware of calamity before calamity….
By deep knowledge of principle, one can change disturbance into order, change danger into safety, chance destruction into survival, change calamity into fortune….
To sense and comprehend after action is not worthy of being called comprehension. To accomplish after striving is not worthy of being called accomplishment. To know after seeing is not worthy of being called knowing. These three are far from the way of sensing and response.
Indeed, to be able to do something before it exists, sense something before it becomes active, see something before it sprouts, are three abilities that develop interdependently. Then nothing is sensed but comprehended, nothing is undertaken without response, nowhere does one go without benefit.
Application for Today
Effective leadership comes from balance–being intelligent but not arrogant, trusting but not naïve, humane but not weak, courageous but not foolish, disciplined but not harsh. One might consider other characteristics of leadership (such as fairness), all of which require balance.
Another application is the practice of mindfulness, of deeply considering situations and anticipating outcomes, particularly problems, before they become problems. The Daoists tell a story of an ancient and renowned physician who was one of three brothers in the same family who practiced medicine. This most well-known figure was asked which of the three brothers did he think was most skilled. He replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not go out of the house. My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood. As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.” His humble answer illustrates the superior value of anticipating and avoiding problems, over being a great problem-solver.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War: The Denma Translation, translated by Thomas Cleary, Boston: Shambhala, 1988, p. xi.