First compiled around 200 BCE – 2 CE, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a staple in both the business and entertainment worlds, with passages popping up in publications like Forbes or Business Insider or likewise quoted in movies like Wall Street and James Bond: Die Another Day.
Commentaries often tout it as the business / political / strategy book to close all business / political / strategy books for executives and leaders. Versions tackling topics like relationship advice, office politics, and even education have also appeared.
While Sun Tzu’s utilitarian approach to leadership is the popular reading fare, his main message is often overlooked: The Art of War ultimately has an antiwar undercurrent, stating that conflicts are best resolved before they begin.
In that regard, there is a book dated as older than The Art of War, falling under the same philosophical umbrella: the Tao Te Ching. Most scholars attribute it to the near-legendary Lao Tzu but it was more likely compiled by anonymous Taoists across China’s period of antiquity.
The book has witnessed many spin-offs like The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Not too far away, George Lucas drew from the Tao Te Ching’s concepts to create the Star Wars galaxy, most notably through The Force (“The Way” in the book), the energy harnessed by Lucas’s Jedi adepts to move physical matter. The character Yoda is allegedly partly modelled after depictions of Lao Tzu in other texts.
The most prominent themes in this sparse tome of 81 verses are the connections between personal and political power, how seemingly contrasting aspects of human nature can be balanced, and the use of self-understanding to understand the world-at-large. At times lyrical, and often appearing to contrast itself, the book is one to be revisited time and again for fresh insights.
Here’s a sampling.
He who is brave in daring will be killed;
He who is brave in not daring will survive.
Of these two kinds of bravery, one is beneficial, while
the other proves harmful.
It is Heaven’s Way to conquer without striving,
To get responses without speaking,
To induce people to come without summoning,
To act according to plans without haste.
Various Tao Te Ching translations abound including those by Western writers like science fictionist Ursula K. Le Guin and scholar-poet Stephen Mitchell. Le Guin said of the book: “Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power. Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue.”
The verses quoted here are from a Chinese jurist who also wrote in English: John C.H. Wu, who helped write the first draft of the Constitution of the Republic of China. Below are selected quotes from Wu’s 1961 English translation for every situation a leader will face:
Therefore the Sage wants to remain behind,
But finds himself at the head of others;
Reckons himself out,
But finds himself safe and secure.
Is not because he is selfless
That his Self is realized?
Humility goes a long way. Both Lao Tzu and John Wu understand human nature and how it functions in institutions, acknowledging our natural aversion to boastful bosses. Notice too how Wu capitalizes the S in the last mention of Self, in it he shows that leadership doesn’t end with the institution, but also develops the individual fully.
The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence
the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been
All the people say, “We ourselves have achieved it!”
He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.
He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres steadily to the path of Tao is a
man of steady purpose.
What is at rest is easy to hold.
What manifests no omens is easily forestalled.
What is fragile is easily shattered.
What is small is easily scattered.
Tackle things before they have appeared.
Cultivate peace and order before confusion and
disorder have set in.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where
your feet stand.