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Emperor, General & Concubine

Posted by mynormas on February 23, 2016


I was in a client club recently and the Superintendent was telling me of his new staff who despite having agriculture or horticulture certificates are lacking in knowledge in what to do on a golf course. He did not see himself as responsible for his workers knowledge.

As a consultant, I see things at a client company as an outsider, usually with a fresh set of eyes and (hopefully) an unbiased mindset. I’m sometimes called in when the company wants the golf course to reach another level; not necessarily because there’s a problem. Other times, I’m called because there is a need for a third-party opinion, a referee even, to resolve a problem at a club that led to a (real or imagined; yes, IMAGINED) deterioration of the golf course. I will meet with a few people at the company and talk to them to see what the issues are. It never fails to surprise me how many people believe that the problem is other people.

These issues reminded me of a story about Sun Tzu – he who wrote the Art of War and an emperor of his era. Be reminded that China wasn’t one whole nation yet but were divided into a few smaller nations.

The version of the translation that I read was written by James Clavell, a renowned novelist himself and this version were full of interesting side stories that serves to illustrate better Sun Tzu’s 13 chapters. It was a very interesting book and I read it several times, it was also the only book I ever burned; I had it when I was working in a plantation 25 years ago and electricity was shut off at 10pm. To continue reading, I put a candle between the pages of the book and I must’ve dozed off. The book was singed but still readable so I kept it. I’ve lost it since then, probably loaned out and never returned or lost in the house moves I’ve made over the years. It’s been a long while so I may have forgotten a few details and I may be adlibbing or paraphrasing a few dialogues therefore if you are into details and accuracy, I would advise you to look it up.

So the story goes like this. The book written by Sun Tzu about the art of war called umm… The Art of War turned into a bestseller and probably would’ve been a blockbuster opera too if only America was as civilized as the kingdom of Wu was 2,000 years ago.

Anyway, the emperor of Wu called up Sun Tzu to his court and asked if what he wrote was good.

“Of course it is, Your Majesty” said Sun Tzu.

“All 13 chapters?” asked the emperor (should ‘emperor’ be with a capital ‘E’? Maybe I should capitalise it next time; just to be on the safe side. Don’t want to be struck by lightning or hit by car eh?)

“All 13 chapters are good Your Majesty” replied Sun Tzu.

“Can it be put to a test?”

“Yes Your Majesty”

“Can the subjects of the test be women?”

“Yes Your Majesty”

The Emperor asked that all the women in the palace be brought out to the courtyard. 180 women came out and lined up.

Sun Tzu arranged them into two companies and put the Emperor’s favourite concubines as the leaders of each company.

Sun Tzu addressed the women “I assume you know the difference between left and right, front and back?” The women nodded “Of course we do”

“Everybody facing front” Sun Tzu yelled, parade ground style to the two companies of women in front of him; they all stood at attention. “Now, everybody; right turn!” shouted Sun Tzu. Immediately the ladies burst out laughing.

Sun Tzu calmly said “When the soldiers cannot and do not know how to follow orders; or if the order is not clear; it is the general’s fault”.

So he started to train and drill the ladies on how to face forward correctly, how to turn left and right upon hearing the commands and so on.

Satisfied that the ladies are now properly trained, he barked the command “Everybody: right turn!” and the girls promptly started laughing again.

Sun Tzu said, “if the orders are clear, if the soldiers have been trained properly and yet the soldiers still can’t follow the orders properly, then it is their officers fault”

In saying so, Sun Tzu ordered the leaders of the two companies executed. The Emperor watching from a raised pavilion, upon seeing that two of his favourite concubines about to be beheaded, promptly sent a message down to Sun Tzu saying that he recognises the greatness of the general and the exhibition can now be concluded without anyone losing their heads. To which Sun Tzu replied “Having first received the appointment to be general, there are certain orders of the Emperor that I am unable to accept.”

He then had the two concubines beheaded and made the next two women to be the new leaders of the companies.

Now when orders are given, the ‘soldiers’ are able to turn to the left or right in perfect order; without uttering a sound.

Sun Tzu then sent a message to the Emperor “Your soldiers are ready and properly trained now, Your Majesty and can be put to any test you desire”

To which the Emperor replied “Let our general dismiss our forces and return to camp. We have no wish to come down and inspect the troops”

The reply from Sun Tzu was a classic man-with-balls “The Emperor is only fond of words and cannot translate into action”

Reading this and thinking about how it relates to someone in your workplace is fine, just don’t forget that sometimes it could also be about you too. There are a few classes of people in the story; The Emperor; who talks about wanting to be the best but not wanting to pay the price. The General, who assumes his people know what to do and does not do training. The Concubines; people who thinks that they know what to do but don’t. The Favourite Concubines; those that cannot be told what to do.

Lest this leads to a flurry of finger pointing, I must hasten to add that we should all be careful of who to blame. I mean, how embarrassing would it be if you thought that the problem of the company is everyone and everything or someone or something when the real problem is you?

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