Sun Tzu Fraud: The Art of Flim-Flam

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(For your amusement, I present an ironic take on the “Sun Tzu: Art of War” commentary)

In researching The Art of War for my recently published book The School of Sun Tzu, I discovered a direct link between important management discoveries in pre-China 2300 years ago, and some of the best stuff appearing these days in the management and planning genre. Needless to say this is a fascinating discovery. We are today re-discovering new disciplines, and the discipline needed to deliver those disciplines – some of which has lain fallow in dusty archives for over two millennia. One of these discoveries is Ping-fa, erroneously referred to as “Sun Tzu – The Art of War” – and you’ll have to read my book to find out where those errors came from.

The disheartening aspect of these discoveries has been that, due to poor translation, poor scholarship or a lack of understanding of the culture, politics and philosophy of ancient times, these early lessons learned (and applied) are usually being interpreted incorrectly. In some cases, the misinterpretations and misapplications have caused harm. The notion of “workplace warriors” traces its origins, as one example, quite incorrectly to what are actually instructions for conflict free management, found in such works as The Art of War. Similar errors are being brought forward regarding Machiavelli and Attila the Hun – among others. (These famous characters incidentally were not necessarily “good guys” but they do not in any way deserve the rap that recent commentators have bestowed upon them.)

It is difficult, but I am unwilling to say impossible, to dispel these now well institutionalized notions.  But there is no doubt it will take considerable effort to move on, as the military, militant and in some cases bloodthirsty, ruthless take is now received wisdom and well engrained. How does one shake up widely distributed ideas more reminiscent of fortune cookies than that found in legitimate research? Consider my challenge.

My book argues that The Art of War is really “The Art of Peace,” and rather than having been written by an army general, it was the work of a dedicated and inspired team created within an academy in the pre-China state of Qin. I support this argument with a considerable gathering of compelling evidence, evidence that till now has never been linked and analyzed. It turns out that “The Art of Peace” contains a complete, fully integrated methodology for management without conflict – and that methodology applies equally well to interpersonal relations and international diplomacy. The book is all about the management or organizations and relations between organizations. It is about managing in a way that will achieve results without waste or delay. And conflict is all about waste and delay. Does this scenario not deserve our attention?

My work is now found in military organizations and embassies, universities and on the book shelves of CEOs. It is attractive to those who seek a better understanding of that so-called “Art of War,” but more so by those who are convinced the world needs new methods for ending conflict and building peace. And that is the audience this book was written for. As for many of those who love the military Sun Tzu, the very notion that the book is not about death and destruction is blasphemy. “Sun Tzu is about combat. That’s it, that’s all.” Dialogue with such people is usually impossible. Evidently there is money to be made – as well as turf to be protected here, and woe betide those who shake the trees.

I do regret that many who have spent some considerable time on Sun Tzu (some even, I expect, having memorized it); some who have published books and studies on the subject; and most significantly, those who operate businesses offering “Sun Tzu wit and wisdom” and absolutely entrenched in their understanding. As a consequence, we have the absurd situation of work warrior champions basing their “advice” on a book that advocates peace and harmony. So what is to be done?

Of the numerous Sun Tzu – the Warrior exploiters operating on-line and in store fronts, a small number claim significant turf and superiority. They make – I assume – considerable money selling the benefits of militaristic management. In my view, this “take” on Sun Tzu, and the “merits” of a combat approach to human, business and organizational relations needs to be challenged. I did just that with one of the “majors” in this domain, an individual that claims a large Web, Twitter and other social media presence. The reaction? I was insulted for asking questions in his blog, then blocked from his site. It says something when an self-proclaimed authority on a subject is unable to answer simple questions – as challenging as they may appear,.

If someone is making claims about the merits of decimating recalcitrant employees, over-eager competitors and anyone / anywhere who gets in the way, and if they are claiming that this is the “wisdom” of ancient China, then I say they need to prove that. But it appears my request for substantiation was declared a “military assault.” Apparently, when you operate in a world that you define as combative, everything is combat.I am not amused by this approach to Ping-fa (Sun Tzu). Sun Tzu’s every admonition rails against frontal assault, especially when you know nothing about the people involved, their strengths or competencies.

But when this “expert” circled his wagons, I was motivated to write an absurd story to make a point. The point is that there are sham artists and carpet baggers in the domain of “management wisdom.” They create short snappy manuals on how to reform individuals and their organizations – and for a surprisingly large number – there is no way to do this but the army way. “After all,” they say, “General Sun Tzu, one of the greatest management (military) theorists of all time says that’s the way to manage.” If asked for corroboration to this argument, they are quick to introduce Machiavelli, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, or any of a host of apparent masters at getting things done – whatever the cost. It’s a sad business, and I suspect we shall never know how much has been lost to organizations, and how much suffering has been inflicted, because managers have come to believe that they are captains of war, rather than captains of industry.

There is a serious note to this parody. We don’t have to agree that Sun Tzu was, as one author had it, “a sissy.” But I think we all should examine very carefully what is being passed around as truth – and wisdom – especially by those who have power over other people. Many of our organizations and institutions are toxic environments, managed by people who could not care less about sensitivities or needs. The employees, clients and dependents of these organizations could benefit from a lighter tone. And importantly, it could be that process, productivity and profit might be greater in organizations that care. That should interest some business leaders.

Sham Wow: The Art of Flim-Flam

(An event)

Sham Wow: Good morning everyone, my name is Sham Wow – you can call me ‘Sham’ for short, but not for long (haha). Welcome to this enlightening, informative and shape shifting experience with Sun Tzu, the greatest military general who ever lived. Thanks to many of you for pre-ordering my complete DVD set of Getting on Top and Reaching a Fruitful Climax. And to all of you, many thanks for paying the entrance fee for this event, a mere $750 per person (reduced by 30% for each additional registrant). It helps our ongoing product development and research to ensure that we are continuing to bring you the best Art of War under the Sun (Tzu). Hehehehe. I crack me up.

So before we begin, are there any questions?

Alvin: Sham, can you tell us more about the research you conduct?

Sham WoW: Thank you for your assertive intervention. We are examining – continually – new potential applications of Sun Tzu. As you all know Sun Tzu is a perfect application to war and the workplace, but now we are examining Sun Tzu for child upbringing, Sun Tzu for more efficient door to door postal services, Sun Tzu as a vacation guide, and – our very promising – Sun Tzu for better dental hygiene.

Alvin: Well Sham, thank you but that sounds like product development to me. What about research into the authorship, age and original meaning and intent of Sun Tzu?

Sham WoW: Thank you Alvin for that provocative question, but there is nothing to be uncovered about those subjects. It is well documented that Sun Tzu is all about trashing enemies, getting rich from your victim’s wealth, and taking over countries and other such enemies. It would be a waste of time and money to rake over those coals. As a direct descendent of 26 generations of Wows I can assure you all those issues have been examined to death. There is nothing more to learn. And unless you have an advanced degree in ancient Chinese (pre Han dynasty) I won’t even talk to you. So, anything else?

Bobby: Morning Sham – it’s great to be here for a refresher. I’ve been a Sham Wow follower for many years and my house painting business operates at peak efficiency because of it. Paint By The Numbers has been operating at a profit for five years. I’m here because I want to get some advice. My otherwise disciplined troops seem to whine continually about my “management style.” They’re just a bunch of wimps but my daughter – who is a platoon sergeant in the exterior finishing department – says she is hearing that her platoon thinks Paint By The Numbers stinks. And she says she thinks that’s why employee turnover last year was 65%. But I know that’s the fault of my competitors, so I need to learn how to crush them.

Sham WoW: Terrific story Bazooka Bob – that’s perfect for an opening to today’s workshop: “How to crush the enemy and make more money” – Sun Tzu at his best.

So to start, I want to offer a small refresher in some classic Sun Tzu aphorisms – statements of utter, classic brilliance that you should memorize and paste on your office walls in 30 point font. Personally, I wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t swear by these over a bound copy of my recently published book: Bang for the Buck: Sun Tzu for the Passionately Offensive.

First and foremost, there is:

IX. 7. In crossing salt-marshes, your sole concern should be to get over them quickly, without any delay. 8. If forced to fight in a salt-marsh, you should have water and grass near you, and get your back to a clump of trees. 

Now this is of vast importance. It’s the very heart of Sun Tzu. It means –  (and you have to have a name like mine to get this) – how it’s essential that you feed your body and soul with the basics of life. Sun Tzu believed one bowl of rice a day was enough for everyone (excepting the generals of course who had to do heavy mental work).

Charlene: Sham I don’t understand the point.

Sham WoW: Please pay attention. I don’t have all day to focus on slackers. Think on that clump of trees. It’s a metaphor for exotic landscaping – something you must ensure your suburban home radiates. That’s how you radiate qi. You want to win, you must have your qi at the hilt and make sure everyone knows it.

Now on to the number two admonition.

X. 25. Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

This means expect everything from your personal army. Even if it kills them. And don’t ever forget they are just children who need to be told what to do. Bazooka Bob, it looks like this is a key instruction you’ve forgotten. In your case Bob I’d suggest a five day boot camp to get those slackers back into shape. Fire them if they flop. See me after class for a promo offer I’m making for team building.

Now number three. Francis – pay attention – I saw you looking out the window. Once more and you’re out of here!

XI.30. Asked if an army can be made to imitate the shuai-jan,  I should answer, Yes.  For the men of Wu and the men of Yueh are enemies; yet if they are crossing a river in the same boat and are caught by a storm, they will come to each other’s assistance just as the left hand helps the right.

Never, ever forget that as a leader of armies you are like the shuai-jan, a famous, deadly Chinese viper. Your job is to sink your enemy’s boat – and even when that boat is going down – and they reach to you for support – you cut off the hand. You are in business. You are not a day care center.

So ladies and gentlemen, that’s the basics for today. I am sure you appreciate the wonder and brilliance of what Sun Tzu had to say, and of course the way Sham Wow keeps these messages fresh, and alive and in the face of the dullards and incompetent.

Let’s take a short Red Bull break and a few minutes of kick boxing in the gym and meet back here at 10.


Welcome back fresh, refreshed and informed. And ready for Part II of the morning. I am sure everyone understands what we have covered.

Sally: Mr. Wow, I’m new to all this except I read a book this summer that says Sun Tzu was all about solving problems before they became problems, and that leaders should be benevolent.

Sham WoW: Sally, I allowed you into this refresher even though you were only marginally qualified. I thought I made it perfectly clear that if you were not able to bring yourself up to speed you would have to leave. As Sun Tzu taught us in the story of the concubines, if you don’t make the grade you are executed.

Sally: Well actually, Mr. Wow I think the concubines story is a metaphor. For teaching leadership and empowerment.

Sham WoW: Sally, the exit is at the back, to your right. You are entitled to a 25% refund. Good day. This is not a democracy, nor is it a discussion. Sun Tzu is perfectly clear on all points.

Sally: This all sounds like flim-flam to me alright Mr. Wow, and I’ll be taking a complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

Sham WoW: Ms. Andrews, I have my lawyers on speed dial, and any further comment or criticism from you will require me to take further action. My assistant, Now Wow will escort you to the door. He will also require from you the handouts you received this morning. Get out.

Now ladies and gentlemen, I should say how grateful I am to Sally Andrews for providing an opportunity to illustrate Sun Tzu at work. As Confucius said, “It’s the height of arrogance to question the sage” – and as you know very well, there is only one sage in this room.

As you have been provided with a live demonstration of Sun Tzu at work (not part of this program offering) I’m going to wind up this session now and thank you for coming. Copies of my book are available at the door, a mere $55.99 cash please, two for $110.00. Buy your spouses a copy because they need to be compliant, and you don’t want them making marks in yours.

Good day to you, and may the Flim-Flam be with you.


The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War is a plain English rendering of the original Sun  Tzu text, unblemished by military overtones. It shows clearly – based on solid research – when it was written and by whom, why it was written and what it achieved. It was (with the Tao Te Ching) the framework and methodology that helped bring about the Chinese empire. It is as useful today for people – and organizations – as it was 2300 years ago.

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