The Chief: What Sun Tzu (Ping-fa) calls a “Sovereign”
[This is an excerpt from my just published book called The School of Sun Tzu – available at:
I have developed, from the Ping-fa and Tao the Ching, extrapolations concerning key organizational roles. These are somewhat intuited from these texts; however the suggested profiles for Chiefs, Leaders and Teams is entirely consistent with the School of Sun Tzu and School of Lao Tzu models.]
Chiefs are the personification of the organization. They are CEO’s, mayors, Chairs of Boards and Presidents of public and private bodies. They may head countries or companies. Competent chiefs are powerful, visionary and in complete touch with their organizations and its constituencies.
Chiefs are very important to organizations and in engagement management. Ping-fa opens, and closes with admonitions directed at chiefs. Little is said to and about them, but their role is clearly important. They are the authors of enterprise strategies that are built from what Ping-fa calls the “view from the heavens.” He is the architect of the vision and builder of the solution. Ping-fa says, In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign. (VII.1 and VIII.1)
Chiefs have high energy and are committed to success. They are awesome. The Tao Te Ching says, “the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees. The truly great man dwells on what is real and not what is on the surface.” Lawrence Fouraker, former Dean of the Harvard Business School, said the most important contribution of chief executives was “intellectual capital.” (Horton 1992, 30)
Good chiefs are always conscious of the impact of their behavior on the organization. While chiefs are visibly subdued, they are full of power. Their values are known to their people. Their limited encounters are strategic, forward-looking and results-oriented.
Chiefs need to be “big picture” people because their work is high level and strategic. They have sensitive feelers operating at many levels and in many different ways. They observe. They build and maintain value-based relationships within the organization. They appoint and empower leaders with whom they have a strong trust relationship. This trust flows throughout the organization. Machiavelli said, “The first opinion which one forms of a Prince is by observing the men he has around him.” (McAlpine 1998, 104) And if one does not see “good people” in the organization, one needs to look very carefully at the competence of the chief. (McAlpine 1998. 103)
The best chiefs are nearly invisible outside their organizations. They are the perfect men (and women) that Fung Yu-Lan speaks of, where “tranquility and activity unite.” (Fung Yu-Lan 1995, 16) They are the “hidden champions” of Hermann Simon:
The chief of the world market leader in (a certain piece of equipment) remarked, ‘We want neither our competitors not our customers to know our true market share’. The young chief of a service company commented, ‘We have cherished our anonymity for years and feel very comfortable about it. Nobody has noticed our niche’. After substantial research, Philip Glouchevitch (1992) resignedly stated that these ‘companies remain in many ways Inscrutable – a deliberate characteristic’. (1996, 4)
Chiefs eschew public profile, not because they do not care to be known, but because being known does not always help them achieve their objectives. Truly competent chiefs are inscrutable: they betray neither joy nor angst, unless there is a good reason for doing so. Chiefs are like the “best physician whose name does not get out of the house.” They do not welcome accolades. Tom Watson Jr., IBM’s former CEO, “frequently expressed irritation over the deference shown him. ‘I think a sense of humility is vital, and the more humility the better.’” (Horton 1992, 4)
“Commands” are based on, and driven by the organizational mission. Ping-fa says organizations can’t be successful if they are not benevolent, and they can’t be benevolent if they don’t have a values-based mission. Stephen Covey, who is completely in sync with Ping-fa on the importance of corporate missions, does not find wide support for missions or the necessity for getting them right. One executive told Covey that rather than take six months and involve all his people in a mission exercise, he would “whip this baby out this weekend.”
Covey says that good chiefs take six months (or whatever it takes) and involve all their people. (1991, 16) McNeil says he’s worked with companies “where the process took a full year.” (McNeil 1987, 87) W. Edwards Deming says, “Create and publish to all employees a statement of purpose of the aims and purposes of the company. Management must constantly demonstrate their commitment to this statement.” (Covey 1991, 270) Robert Russell’s Winning the Future says, “Once we’ve established our values and direction and are comfortable with the means, we are ready to put all this to use: to develop strategies for action; making what we believe in happen.” (Russell 1986, 256)
Entrepreneur Portia Isaacson said, “I never deal with details, yet I never fail to give direction.” (Horton, 1992) William Blackie, CEO of Caterpillar Tractor said, “I deride the idea that an executive’s function is problem solving. Bad executives are up to their necks in problems.” (Heller 1985, 373)
Fr. T. M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame for three decades, said “only an idiot would think they could run a place this size and this complicated alone.” The CEO Paradox says “If there is one skill that distinguishes leaders, it is their ability to delegate right.”
Business psychologist Abraham Zaleznick says, “managers prefer working with people; leaders stir emotion.” Transforming leaders, says Warren Bennis, are “social architects.” (Peters and Waterman 1982, 84-85) Chiefs are the “sages” of Thunder in the Sky. They are “guardian spirits of heaven and earth….who work against tremendous odds.” They give the outside world “strategies for nipping problems in the bud,” by “stopping gaps” which they do by “application of the arts of the Way” (i.e. wu-wei, or sensitive intervention). Good chiefs bring helpful changes that add to organization stability, sustainability and excellence.
Chuang Tzu said,
The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not move with things, nor does it anticipate them. It responds to things, but does not retain them. Therefore he is able to deal successfully with things, but is not affected.
When they act they are decisive and move swiftly. They exercise flexibility, coolness and judgment skills under trying conditions. Few however will ever know exactly what she or he has achieved, nor how they went about it.
The best work often seems idiotically simple to group members who are unaccustomed to this sort of leadership. Yet a great deal happens. Sometimes just the lack of needless intervention permits the group to grow and be fertile. (Heider 1988, 89)
A colleague of Arthur Sulzberger, then CEO of the New York Times, said,
I’ve seen him absorbing advice almost the way a sponge sucks up water. What I don’t see…is where does the squeezing process begin, and what is the factor. That starts to force some of the water that’s been absorbed out. (Horton 1992, 31)
Chiefs engineer organizational consensus. The people are motivated by the chief’s vision, values and enthusiasm. He accomplishes his goals through the work of others. Some chiefs might imagine that having achieved consensus where before there was only competition and confusion; having crafted strategies that articulates the consensus and the new goals for the organization; having wisely selected the best leaders available to achieve the strategy, they may now rest. But they cannot. Their vigilance must be constant.
Chiefs remain observant and continually improve their understanding. Proactive diplomats, they see situations before they are seen by anyone else. They are experts at knowing when intervention is necessary, and when it must be avoided at all costs. And when they must intervene, competent chiefs know exactly what minimal tweak will be effective in bringing things to right.
Competent chiefs are cautious, not prone to either hasty decisions or actions. They are the gatherers and evaluators of intelligence. They are adept at deciding when action is appropriate and when it is not. They have finely tuned intuitive senses about when events will work themselves out without their intervention, and when a subtle nudge may be needed. Their influence may be as subtle as the sweeping before a curling stone, and as invisible as a wedding gift that never arrives. They do not make these decisions lightly. Cleary speaks of, “the importance of discerning observation in managing people,”
Sages govern not by trying to impose their own personal wills upon the national polity and the masses of the people, but by determining what is already there and skillfully arranging existing facts and forces such as they are in working relations designed to bring out the optimum efficiency and advantage possible under any circumstances. Thus in order to govern people, sages need to guide and direct them; to guide and direct people, sages need to know their aims and hopes; to know their aims and aspirations, sages need to watch what people undertake of their own accord. (Cleary 1993, 81, 86)
The chief’s subtle interventions, and non-interventions, achieve slight adjustments. These actions and non-actions keep the organization path clear. An impending connection that might have been unhelpful is averted.
Sometimes tweaking will not achieve the desired result. Perhaps conditions are too complex, events have moved too far forward, or the other is at too great a distance. At that point, the chief may decide to commence a formal engagement. It is a major point of departure when an engagement is decided upon.
Here the organization becomes an “instigator” in relation to one or more defined “others.” A strategy is drafted and conveyed to a leader. In the best engagements, the other is unaware that they have been so designated. They may never know it. Some commentators have seen this. Cleary spoke of, “using creative interaction to achieve organizational objectives.” Lau and Ames (1996, 79) speak of commanders with insight, who recognize critical moments and are able to capitalize on them. “The capacity of the small, incipient, and seemingly incidental to control the large by virtue of its pivotal position underlies the notion of getting the most from a situation while minimizing loss.”
Chiefs engage for other reasons other than meeting the direct “selfish” needs of an organization. In other words, engagements are not necessarily conducted for organizational gain. They could be undertaken to avoid loss – of the organization, or of the other! Sometimes the chief will cause benefit to an other, if that adds to environmental stability.
When the chief intervenes, he moves others in ways that will prevent or minimize the effects of encounters.
Chiefs maintain a strategic role in engagement, and their leaders are empowered. Good chiefs, (a) hire the best for engagements and (b) trust them. Good chiefs make sure their leaders are ready, then (c) they are turned loose to do their jobs. They make sure that teams are adequately resourced. Chiefs may monitor engagements when they are concerned about both details and the “big picture.” But they do not interfere.
In 1999 Fortune Magazine studied two “CEO factories” – General Electric and McKinsey. Fortune found that, though they were very different cultures, both produced excellent chief executives, and had an, “absolute insistence, blunt and uncompromising, on the best people – finding them, developing them, evaluating them, and getting rid of them if they don’t measure up.” The Book of Leadership and Strategy says, “Rulers have to be careful about whom they appoint to office.” As Cleary noted, they are the key to order, harmony and loyalty. (Cleary 1992a, 37)
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 Ping-fa refers specifically to chiefs in: I.1*, 5, 13*; III.12-15; VII.1*, VIII.1*; X.24*; XII.16*, 18-19*, 22*; XIII.4*, 26*. (* means the line applies to both chiefs and leaders). (I.1 is included because it is the principal admonition, applying to all).
 Here Ping-fa and Machiavelli were in complete accord
 Fortune, August 2, 1999. CEO Super Bowl by Geoffrey Colvin.