The Ordinary Leader: Sun Tzu's Art of Leadership


This book will launch on Dec 20, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒

We all have the desire to win. We might experience it in our own personal way, but losing hurts. Emotional losses hurt even more than any sort of physical pain we might endure.

So, here’s a little perspective for you: there will always be more people who are unsuccessful than successful. There will always be more losers than winners, and there will always be more followers than leaders.

In Sun Tzu’s eyes, a leader wasn’t someone who was able to fight and win all the time. A leader was someone who truly understood that winning and losing was neither special nor extraordinary.

Learning to embrace failing is not easy. It requires courage, encouragement, and some faith that things will work out in the end.

But hey, that is leadership: moving forward in the face of uncertainty.

I hope to show you The Art of War as a book for helping us to make sense of why things are the way they are. It won’t be able to tell us exactly how to deal with our dramas or be able to lessen the pain that we’ll feel, but it will be able to help us make sense of what things mean.

Wisdom Over Knowledge

The world has changed a lot since SunTzu’s time, but we haven’t. Technology has forever improved the quality of my life, and I (like most people, I assume) spend more time on the computer than talking to others. But despite all the technological advancement, I suspect that I’m not that different from a peasant living in China over two thousand years ago. We might look different, but the roots of our pleasure and pain probably haven’t changed much at all.

I know this because as I grow older, I’m beginning to see patterns around the struggles that keep me perpetually trapped. Struggles around trying to maintain friends, my arguments with my wife about not communicating enough, or the emotional rollercoaster I feel in striving to create a future I can claim to be my own.

Sometimes I find myself lying in bed asking: Is this all there is? It’s a realization that my struggles are common, mundane, and boring.

Certainly, the problem can’t be a shortage of information. There’s more information at our fingertips than ever before. I feel fortunate that I can find communities of like-minded people online who are discussing problems that I previously thought were so unique to me, and only me.

Case in point: my friend was struggling as the only competitive Asian woman weightlifter in her area who was under the age of twenty-five and five feet tall. Amazingly, she managed to find a network of similar women across the globe in places like Japan and Brazil.

More information and connectivity has been great, but why do we still feel stuck?

I’ve come to realize that dealing with my life’s mundane struggles isn’t a matter of having more knowledge; it’s a matter of having enough wisdom. I need new skills that I can apply to my life, not just a better expression of the problem.

Knowledge isn’t the same as wisdom. I can be knowledgeable about an infinite number of topics, but I might not understand any of it enough to be able to apply it. I can rote learn mathematical formulas and expressions, but give me a slightly different equation, and I’m dumbfounded.

Confucius (孔子) said, “Deliberation without learning is a waste of time, and learning without deliberation will just be forgotten.” The knowledge we accumulate must go through a process of internalization before it can be called wisdom—we have to deliberate on it and we have to look for new ways to experience it, before we understand how to apply it.

Think of knowledge like food: it’s no use to us in its raw form, we must process it before we can use it as a source of energy. Wisdom is being able to apply the knowledge that we have using our sense of reason and judgment. Wisdom is our ability to assess the situation, decide on the direction we should head toward, and know what actions we should take once we get there.

Wisdom is the strength of our decision-making. If we know that all roads lead to Rome, wisdom is knowing exactly which one to take. The world starts off strangely foreign to us, but honor it and keep searching for the answers, and it’ll make you stronger.

Needless to say, The Art of War is our platform for developing wisdom. SunTzu won’t give you the answers to questions like how to mend your relations with your girlfriend or boyfriend, but that’s not the point (would you even want to get advice from an ancient Chinese man, anyway?).

What he’ll do is help us to figure out the truth by enriching our perspective. An artist won’t be able to teach you taste or creativity, but he can teach you the basic strokes, and how they generally approach the canvas. The rest, I’m afraid, is up to you.

Chinese silver medalist JingRuixue (景瑞雪) was once asked about her performance after a close wrestling match. She said, “I felt like our skill level was almost the same, but my opponent had the better frame of mind.”

Between two equally skilled and knowledgeable individuals, success will come down to the clarity of a person’s mind and judgment. In wrestling, wisdom is about knowing what techniques can be used on an opponent and when. In life, it’s about knowing how to constantly bump into the limit of your mental and physical capabilities, and push further still. It’s about deeply believing that all problems are workable.

In the Ming (明) dynasty, a military court official named YuanLiaofan (袁了凡) was told by a monk that he would only live to the age of fifty-three, and that he would die with no children. At first he disregarded the monk’s advice, but soon it seemed as though the monk’s predictions were happening with frightening accuracy.

Fortunately, he lived until the ripe age of sixty-nine and had four sons. When he died, he left his sons four books about his experience of changing his destiny. He wrote, “If god wanted to give a person wealth and riches, power and fortune, he would first bestow on them wisdom. Because a person without sufficient judgment would not be able to retain even the greatest fortunes. If you gave an expensive necklace to a child, they would be more likely to break it than get any value from it.”

To YuanLiaofan, there was an explicit order to how heaven would change our lives: wisdom first, fortune second. And how right YuanLiaofan was! About 70 percent of people who win the lottery or come across vast sums of money, wind up broke in a few years!

There’s no shortage of stories out there reinforcing YuanLiaofan’s point, but indulge me for one moment, so that I may share one of my personal favorites: the story of Juicero.

Juicero was a company that made a device for juicing fruit and vegetables. The Wi-Fi-connected device pressed juice from pre-packaged packets sold exclusively by the company. In 2014, the company received $120 million in funding and retailed its juice press for the reasonable price of $699.

No doubt some thought that it was worth it, as it was a beautifully designed and engineered machine. It was clean, minimalistic, and pressed juice with over four tons of force (impressive!). Juicero’s founder compared himself to Apple’s Steve Jobs. “Perfected by Earth, pressed by us,he said.

However, Juicero’s success was short-lived. Three years later, Bloomberg News published a story revealing that Juicero’s juice packets could easily be squeezed by hand, producing the same quality of juice as the machine. Venture capitalist Ben Einstein wrote, "Juicero’s Press is an incredibly complicated piece of engineering, but the complexity was unnecessary and likely arose from a lack of cost constraints during the design process.”

Later that year, Juicero announced that it was suspending all sales and was searching for a buyer for the company. Unfortunately for Juicero, the company was bestowed with great fortunes first and wisdom second, not the other way around as YuanLiaofan would have wanted it.

I once stayed at a friend’s house on holiday with him and his wife. I went on holiday because I wanted to relax and not do much at all. But after the first day I had to leave and move to a hotel. Not because something went wrong, but because things were going too well!

In an effort to be accommodating, my friend’s wife was spending too much effort on making sure I was taken care of, asking me questions about what I wanted to eat for breakfast and when. Okay, she was trying to be helpful, but it was a holiday! I wanted to enjoy being a man of leisure, operating on no particular schedule at all.

The ancient historian SimaQian (司馬遷) said, “A person who does wrong will inevitably meet their own ill fate.” That is something that we’ve seen time and time again throughout history: nobody can reverse this. But a person who does good may not be rewarded at all, because what they believe to be good may not actually be true, unless they have the wisdom to know what doing good means to the other person.

About the author

Geoff is a Chinese history hobbyist. As part of a new generation of native speakers that understands both eastern and western culture, he brings to readers deep insights from China’s 3,000-year history. On other days, Geoff runs a strategy practice for a customer experience digital consultancy. view profile

Published on November 14, 2020

80000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Self-help

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