Sometime between 480 and 221 BC during China’s Warring States Period, a general named Wu wrote a short and now widely read treatise on how to win a big fight. Wu’s personal history is shrouded in mystery. He appears to have been a contemporary of Confucius and was probably a member of a class of landless aristocrats who had lost their dukedoms during the wars of consolidation.
Some of them became academics. Others, like Wu, worked as mercenaries. Wu was reputedly retained by King Helü of the kingdom of Wu, a place considered semi-barbaric. After a series of conquests, that kingdom became the most powerful state of its time. Wu disappeared when King Helü finally conquered the state of Chu. Wu’s actual date of death is unknown.
His book, however, survived and became one of the most important military texts ever, and one of the most popular. It is required reading at all war colleges, most business schools, and many philosophy departments. Every mediator and negotiator needs to study it.
Wu’s advice was simple, to the point, and tough as nails. He urged military commanders to gather intelligence, gauge costs, make plans, position themselves for confrontation, maneuver for advantage, stay calm under fire, and wherever possible avoid unnecessary confrontation. He also explained how to do all this.
The highest excellence, he said, is the “sheathed sword,” achieving your goal without fighting. Much later, Wu was given the more honorific name Sun Tzu and his work was called The Art of War. Sun Tzu believed that understanding conflict is vitally important to the political health of the state and his pragmatics were built on five foundational precepts.
On, he said, is “The Way” (the Tao) which moves people to be in accord with their leaders and each other. “Climate” connotes cold, heat, night, day, times and seasons; in short, the weather. “Terrain” is made up of distances, features of the landscape, and land cover dangers. “Command” stands for the virtues of wisdom, benevolence, and strictness of the leader. And “Regulation” is the set of methods and disciplines by which forces must be marshaled.
These were the foundational ideas spelled out in thirteen short chapters. All commanders who are familiar with those elements, he said, will prevail. Those who aren’t will fail. Simply substitute the word “negotiator” or “mediator” for “commander” and you get the idea. Our job as serious and honest brokers is to bring out leadership and choreograph a solid resolution effort.
Choreography (literally, “dance-writing”) is the art of fashioning the specific functions and forms through which conflict plays out. A professional choreographer is concerned with controlling the direction of an unfolding narrative. He or she sets the mood and manages the action through the interplay of sound and light, the use of backgrounds and foregrounds, the positions and juxtapositions of people and material things, and the unfolding tempo of the drama. Fundamentally, Sun Tzu was a choreographer of conflict.
Whether you are Secretary of State, Vice President of an oil exploration company, or head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, political choreography requires precisely the same tasks as those outlined by Sun Tzu: undertaking reconnaissance, measuring costs, planning strategies, positioning for the right time, anticipated maneuvers and counters, staying calm in the storm, and orchestrating necessary and unnecessary confrontations. Unlike Sun Tzu, your work devolves to the transfer of possibilities as people grapple with inner and outer conflicts.
The Art of War has major import for mediation. It is profoundly Asian if you are working in that part of the world, and perhaps in certain other cross-cultural settings. It is highly tactical and offers specific maneuvers and moves, many of which were further elaborated by subsequent Chinese scholars in a book called The Thirty Six Stratagems. Finally, it is a handbook for hard-ball negotiating.
It is also a profound call for cooperation through the “sheathed sword” philosophy. Mediators see power close up and have opportunities to help influence its use. Disputants channeled it through their access to resources; their expertise, experience, or knowledge; the histories of their relationships; their rights and entitlements; and their degree of being organized.
Sun Tzu understood this. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have. Therein lies leverage and influence.