Sun Tzu, while a military strategist who wrote The Art of War in regards to conquering one’s enemy on the battlefield, had many lessons that can be applied to leadership within the scope of political work or campus activism. I will detail some of my favorite axioms and how I feel they apply to leadership in regards to my battlefield, that being the battlefield of ideas and policies, and how society will be shaped by those in power. As Clausewitz stated, war is just politics by other means. In a sense, politics is war by other means, just a bloodless and democratic form of it.
“A leader leads by example, not by force.”
To lead by example and not force is to excuse those who make mistakes in the beginning and show them the correct way to go about doing something. Having worked many jobs where I was disciplined for minor mistakes, I can relate to Tzu’s axiom. If one leads by example and not force (discipline, whether spoken or, in the example that Tzu speaks of, physical), there will be less resentment amongst those you are seeking to inspire and lead. It need be noted that I didn’t spend very long at those jobs where I was disciplined for minor mistakes and not shown how to do something via example; whereas, those who have led by example have inspired a trust and kinship with myself and other employees or activists. Leadership is not about having power to use without limit, it is about pulling the same amount of weight as those under you to inspire their continued loyalty. If you have to, train fellow activists on the job; I know I have.
“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”
What Tzu is stating in this axiom is that on the most basic level, you must understand the tactics of your opponent and, if need arises or if they are particularly effective, utilize them yourself. Understand the means which create their ends. Learn their ground game. Who are they reaching out to? What is their base of support? Learn to create a base that numbers larger than that of your opponent. Remember, in elections or initiatives, all you need is a plurality.
“A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.”
While achieving this is somewhat difficult in a time of constant communication, 24 hour news, and social networking, it’s still possible. Make your opponents feel as if they have the upper hand and make them complacent. Do everything you can do under the radar. It’s priceless to see opponents aghast, when they catch wind of the phonebanking, canvassing, or any other effective form of field-work that you are doing, due to their constituents contacting them or seeing their poll numbers steadily decrease right before the election. Leadership in regards to politics is not only about winning, but having the tactics necessary to ensure that victory. You owe it to those you lead to make the conditions possible for victory, otherwise will they have any impetus to fight?
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
This axiom goes hand in hand with a Bible verse I detailed in a prior piece about building a tower without making the necessary calculations of the costs. As a leader, you must take into account everything that will be necessary including funds, materials, manpower, and the most mundane little expenses that you will need to lead and win effectively. Always remember that it is better to have something and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.
“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.”
Time and time again, I’ve learned this lesson. I’ve worked with many people who would have served in other capacities to a much better extent. As a leader, you must be able to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses, and thus be able to allocate them correctly. Your activists and volunteers are human capital that can lead to distortions if not correctly placed. Those who are better with organization are much better suited to planning events, typing up spreadsheets, and making expense reports whereas those who have shown an ability to work with the public are better suited to canvassing, phonebanking, or serving as ambassadors to those whom you are trying to build coalitions with to achieve your goal.
The Art of War is a great read even for those who aren’t involved in warfare, as it has many lessons that can be applied to other facets of life, especially those in regards to leadership, the form that I embrace of humility and service to those serving under me, a concept that Tzu understood over two thousand years ago.