Sun Tzu Bing-fa: The Role of Leaders

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These observations on organizational and team management are drawn directly from Sun Tzu Bing-fa (incorrectly known as “The Art of War”) and the Tao te Ching.

The management of inter-organizational relations is a prime responsibility for the organizational chief. From time to time laissez-faire relations are troublesome, or potentially problematic. A correctional “engagement” may be needed. Chiefs determine when such engagements are needed
 and how they shall be handled. The chief builds a strategy that draws on the organizational mission and the intelligence he has gathered. Engagements are essential to the well-being of his and the other’s organization, and will be minimal in scope and duration.

Chiefs hire leaders who are carefully instructed in the principles and practices of engagement management. They are infused with virtue. Like their chiefs, they adhere to rigorous ethical standards and therefore answer to higher values beyond that of the organization. Leaders are bound by the standards of their profession. They are discreet, yet forthright. Leaders avoid intrigue and confusion. Leaders cultivate relationships that will help their organizations, but in relationships they give up only what intelligence they must.

Leaders are able to combine observation and assessment skills with exceptional talent in leading and managing. They do all that while remaining in harmony with their organization, the strategy, and what Bing-fa (Sun Tzu) calls “the Moral Law.” Highly proficient planners, they have a proven capacity for learning and adaptability. They know intuitively when they need guidance, approvals, and refusals. They are at complete ease with decision-making. These leaders are found in all competent organizations, working in management and administrative capacities, or as negotiators and diplomats.

Engagement leaders know and believe in the mission. They are sagacious but not given to intemperance. Leaders know what bait will tempt them. They are both cautious and astute, and born risk-takers. They may appear outwardly calm, but inwardly they are a seething cauldron. Because they must balance foresight, wisdom, and action, they occupy the positions of greatest stress in organizations. Because they are fully informed, they are not surprised, and their timing is impeccable.

Competent leaders know they are utterly dependent on — and will be judged by — how well they develop their teams. They know the dynamics of teams and the techniques of control. They recruit them, teach them, and make them one. Leaders train their teams so well that one member can perform any task as effectively as any other member. Leaders empower their team members, infusing them with strength. The team is not as strong as its weakest link, but as strong as the strongest link. When they are filled with energy and power, they are ready to move. They win when they engage.

The Tao Te Ching and Bing-fa say that maintaining control is critical, despite how well equipped the team is, how attractive the prizes, or how great the opportunity for glory. If control is lost, there is failure, and then only weeds will grow where there were once fine gardens. Teams exist only to complete engagements. When the mission is accomplished, the team is disbanded.

When leaders are most successful, few will know.
 When they are unsuccessful, all will know because losses have occurred, and perhaps conflict has broken out.

Leaders are governed by the strategy and new intelligence, gathered as the engagement advances. They carry out their instructions, shaped by what they learn in the field. They are fully authorized to modify the strategy if conditions dictate it, to the point of acting counter to specific instructions in that strategy. When they make adjustments, they do so without fear. They have absolute certainty that the chief will support every change. This “delegation” is far more than task assignment. “There are … commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed” (VIII.3). This is the Bing-fa principal directive on delegation and field authority.When Bing-fa tells the leader he is on his own and tells the chief to leave him alone, this does not mean the leader is “independent” or “adrift.”

Organizations need to be very careful in the
recruitment and training of leaders. And they need to make sure that their chiefs do not imagine they are at the same time engagement leaders. Sound organizations have chiefs who are in the heavens and who appoint competent leaders who are on the earth. The business of chiefs is wisdom and strategic management. Their work is carried out by leaders. They translate strategies into action. They deliver results. Bing-fa spells out twenty- four leader directives. Mark well where he said chiefs
should pay attention!

World class team leaders facilitate the establishment and accomplishment of the team’s goals. He or she is responsible for ensuring that the team fulfills the team’s Charter and operates within its stated Boundaries.

This is an excerpt from The School of Sun Tzu:Winning Empires without War.

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