Sun Tzu and the King of Wu

This story feels apocryphal. It is based largely on the writings of Sima Qian, a castrated Chinese historian who, heavily influenced by Confucianism, wrote in a very moralistic style that’s apparently challenging to translate effectively. It is possible that this story was created to reinforce the broader marketing narrative of Sun Tzu. It may however also be completely true. In either case it is still a compelling portrayal of an era.

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The King of Wu had heard about Sun Tzu’s military prowess and invited him to his palace. Sun Tzu accepted the kings invitation and was welcomed by the king. The king wished to hire Sun Tzu’s services but was skeptical and so issued Sun Tzu a challenge to make an ‘army’ out of the King’s harem of concubines.

Sun Tzu accepted the challenge and divided the concubines into two companies. Each company is captained by one of the Kings favored royal courtesans. Sun Tzu organizes them into a parade ground formation.

He then tells the concubines that on his command they will turn and march left. He then gives the order. The concubines laugh and giggle among themselves. Sun Tzu apologizes to the king lamenting that if his orders were not followed he did not make his orders clear and he is at fault. He will try again.

The concubines are again brought into formation and the order is given for them to turn and march left. Again they laugh at him. Sun Tzu calmly has the two favored concubines he had earlier promoted taken out and beheaded. Sun Tzu appoints two new concubines as Captains of each Company. ‘If the generals orders are still not followed, then it is the fault of the officers who failed in their duties’.

Again he gets the harem to stand in formation. Again he gives the order to turn and march left. This time the concubines all turn and all march left as ordered.

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This story has become a firm favorite among business consultants and motivational types who like to put Chinese prints up on power-point slides and then espouse Eastern philosophy.  I think the take-away from this story is that if your subordinates don’t do what you tell them that you should lure them outside into the parking lot and chop off their heads. Thereby motivating your remaining staff. Alas modernity now limits the motivating properties of violence in the workplace. Passive aggressive tendencies now hold sway, when we’d like desperately to punch someone in the face, we have to make do with hiding their stapler instead.

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