How far are you prepared to go?


When the King of Wu interviewed Sun Tzu to be his general, he asked if the principles of the “Art of War” could extend to teaching the King’s 180 concubines to march in formation. The King watched on as Sun Tzu lined up the concubines in two columns and put the two favourite concubines at the head of each column; Sun Tzu explained that when he gave the order to turn right they must turn right, turn left they must turn left. He asked if they understood and they indicated that they did. The drum rolled and he gave the order “Turn Right” at which all the concubines fell about laughing.

Sun Tzu explained that when the order is not clear and therefore not understood it is the fault of the general, but when the order is clear and understood yet disobeyed, it is the fault of the officers. So he explained again when he gave the order to turn right they must turn right and turn left they must turn left. They indicated that they understood. He lined up the concubines again in their two columns. The drum rolled and he gave the order to “turn right”. The concubines fell about laughing. He then gave the order to behead the two favourite concubines. The King tried to stop him but Sun Tzu said: “Once a general has been commissioned there are certain orders that he cannot obey”. The two favourite concubines were beheaded and replaced with the next in line.

Sun Tzu explained the orders once again. The drum rolled and the concubines proceeded to turn right, left and drill in an orderly and excellent manner. He turned to the King of Wu and said: “Your troops are ready for inspection.” But the King was too distressed to inspect the concubines.

Sun Tzu said, “The King is proud of his words but cannot put his words into deeds”.

With 178 concubines left the King had got off quite lightly. He appointed Sun Tzu his general and many victories were won.

People in disputes say that they are prepared to be ruthless to win but like the King of Wu they may not be prepared to carry through.

I knew a man who was losing his job; his immediate boss had taken against him. He asked a very wise man what he should do. By chance, the wise man was a friend of the owner of the company where the spouse of the boss worked. The wise man advised that the solution was simple, he would ask the owner to turn against the spouse so that the job of the spouse would start to be lost.

The man declined and lost his job. He suffered a defeat but kept his honour. It turned out to be the right decision.

Moral: Hang on to your concubines unless you have plenty in reserve and try not to have favourites.


Extract from "The Art of War, Peace & Palaver: The Contentious Guide to Legal Disputes" 

© Paul Brennan 2018 All rights Reserved.

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