The King of Wu reaches out to Sun Tzu
You can read 7 Habits until even your dreams are proactive; business will still be war, the difference being you give your life for your company, not your country. During China’s Spring and Autumn period (707-476 BCE), the only business was war. Perhaps Jack Welch would have made it to general in such times. Whether Sun Tzu would have been a CEO today, or arraigned before a grand jury, we’ll leave to the following true story as evidence.
Such was the military spirit of the times that the King of Wu decided his harem should be as skilled at fighting as they were at … flirting. Greatly impressed by Art of War, the best-selling personal development title in China since the Dao De Jing, the King of Wu summoned its author, Sun Tzu, to ask him, “Can you turn my shiftless concubines into gung-ho soldiers?”
Then as now, any answer other than “yes” to a man of Grade A guanxi would be career suicide. “Ke yi, mei wenti!” (Sure, no problem!) Sun Tzu assured his majesty. “Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.” No doubt he cursed his decision to pursue a career as a renowned strategist when the palace talent assembled: 180 plump-cheeked beauties, as giggly-headed as they were carefully-coiffed.
“Which two of these worthies do you most favor, your highness?” Sun Tzu asked the king, figuring perhaps his favorites would have the mental attainment for ought other than eyelash-batting and wine-pouring. Beckoning the two top courtesans forward, Sun Tzu handed them each a halberd and began at the beginning. “Alright. When I say ‘Advance!’, move forward. When I say ‘Left!’, turn left. ‘Right!’ means turn right, and ‘About face!’ means turn around.”
Simple doesn’t mean easy. It was a classic managerial boondoggle. “Who is this pointy-headgear-wearing stranger, to order us, head concubines, around?” thought the King’s favorites. Three times Sun Tzu repeated his orders, and five times more, but the ladies drilled with ever-growing passive-aggressive incompetence, the other doxies smothering their giggles. At the point of losing it, Sun Tzu brought forth a drummer and two executioners, axes at the ready.
Red-faced from the effort of restraining his anger, Sun Tzu tried it one last time. After a half-minute drum roll, he shouted “Right!” Sensing the tension, but by no means cowed, all 180 courtesans erupted in laughter at the order.
Laozi knows how close Sun Tzu came to a full-on Christian Bale rant, but you don’t become a famous strategist by showing your anger. “Get it together, Sun Tzu,” he told himself, “You’re the commander. If they don’t understand, it’s your fault.” Gathering himself, he gave instructions in an icy cool tone.
Poor, over-indulged concubines. When the drum roll ended and Sun Tzu shouted “Left!”, they once again collapsed in laughter, mistaking his lack of emotion for tolerance.
“That’s it!” Sun Tzu barked haughtily. “If the rules aren’t clear, if the orders aren’t understood, the commander is to blame. If the orders are clear but are not carried out, it’s the officers who are to blame.” He nodded to the executioners, who hustled the suddenly contrite concubines off to the chopping block.
King Wu had been watching the proceedings from a distance, and dispatched a messenger to Sun Tzu, rather than risk soiling the hem of his exquisite royal gown. “You’re a competent general,” the king’s proxy related, “but without my two favorite courtesans, all food will taste like Arby’s; all music will sound like Westlife. Spare them and I’ll make you famous.”
“Sure, famous as a back-peddling wannabe master strategist,” Sun-Tzu muttered to himself. His message to the king: “You made me commander, and a general on the battlefield is not bound by the whims of his king.” The weeping concubines went off to their deaths.
Sun Tzu quickly appointed two new officers from among the strumpet strike force, now 178 strong. When next the drum rolled and the order was given, the women drilled like West Point graduates on Ritalin. Saddened but wizened by the loss of his favored playthings, the King of Wu appointed Sun Tzu supreme commander of his entire army, which marched on to glory. To this day, San ling wu shen (Issue orders three times, and five times more) serves as a pithy expression to remind managers of the price for excellence.