in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: March 10, 2023

Podcast #877: The Essential Framework for Understanding The Art of War

You heard about The Art of War, and it sounded pretty cool. So you picked up a copy to read. But you found that, beyond a few of its famous maxims, a lot of this text attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu was hard to understand, much less incorporate into your life.

My guest offers a tripartite framework that can help you get a lot more out of The Art of War. His name is Jim Gimian, and he’s an editor of one of the text’s translations as well as the co-author of The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict—Strategies from The Art of War. Today on the show, Jim argues that The Art of War is a holistic, interconnected text that’s about how to approach conflict and obstacles in a holistic, interconnected way. Underlying this approach are three dynamics: Heaven, Earth, and General, which correspond to View, Practice, and Action. Jim and I talk about the importance of constantly orienting and reorienting yourself to an ever-changing world, working with the shih, or energy, in the landscape you’re navigating, using action to further refine your perspective, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art Manliness Podcast. You heard about The Art of War, and it sounded pretty cool. So you picked up a copy to read. But you found that, beyond a few of its famous maxims, a lot of this text attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu was hard to understand, much less incorporate into your life.

My guest offers a tripartite framework that can help you get a lot more out of The Art of War. His name is Jim Gimian, and he’s an editor of one of the text’s translations as well as the co-author of The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict-Strategies from The Art of War. Today on the show, Jim argues that The Art of War is a holistic, interconnected text that’s about how to approach conflict and obstacles in a holistic, interconnected way. Underlying this approach are three dynamics: Heaven, Earth, and General, which correspond to View, Practice, and Action. Jim and I talk about the importance of constantly orienting and reorienting yourself to an ever-changing world, working with the shih or energy, in the landscape you’re navigating, using action to further refine your perspective and more. After the show is over check out our show notes at Alright, Jim Gimian, welcome to the show.

Jim Gimian: Hey, thanks Brett. Thanks for inviting me. Good to talk to you.

Brett McKay: So you co-authored a book called “The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict.” And this is basically, you and your co-author have taken the things you talk about in your consulting work, leadership consulting, about lessons from Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War. I’m curious, how did you end up teaching leadership programs based on this Chinese text of war strategy?

Jim Gimian:Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s a long story, and I’ll give away a little bit of my age here, you know, it really started, like a lot of things we discovered that are helpful and valuable in our lives, it started with an experience of being disappointed and being disillusioned, and having a feeling that things should be better than this, and that happened to be in a number of different areas simultaneously, and it goes back to the years I was in college, I was at Stanford in the late ’60s, and it was a great small college at that point with a great reputation, and I went full of pep and looking to become one of the great leaders as everybody does at 17.

It was possible in those days to get to know your professors very well which I did. They were arguably the leaders in their field. And part of getting to know them is you get invited to their houses and meet their families and observe close in and what became evident really quickly is, there was no transfer between the wisdom that they attained as their big heroes in their field of expertise, and the way they treated their family at home, and I just thought, “I don’t think I wanna wind up where this road leads.”

And this was also the time of tremendous amount of disruption and disillusionment, and disintegration of structures in our society in the late ’60s, the anti-war, civil rights, counter-culture, psychedelic era, and I was able to witness first-hand the anti-war movement very close up, and it soon became clear that neither side really had any kind of insight into how to overcome aggression. And as a young guy who kind of reverted to force and aggression to solve my problems, I just again, saw there was no real insight. So the final look, I think part of it was, this was the psychedelic era, and there were opportunities to take classes in using Hallucinogens to understand more about your mind, and I took a couple of those classes, speaking metaphorically here, of course.

And it was tremendously eye-opening. It showed that reality was not something that was fixed, and more than that, my version of reality wasn’t always the only one. So those kind of propelled me out of the college scene and really took me into the Art of War, among other things in the early ’70s. And that started me on a long course, I found a group of friends and colleagues, other men who were studying it, so we kinda had a men’s group over a number of years, and little by little, we saw that there was a lot of profundity that was not coming through in these older translations. So at the time, I had a good friend who was doing his PhD in Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, so I said to him, one day, I said, “So look, man, there’s a lot of stuff in here that these other translations aren’t bringing out, let’s do a translation with the men’s group and you.” And he looked at me without any hesitation, and he said, “You’re crazy, we can’t do that.”

So I left that conversation kinda with my tail between my legs and went back to the men’s group, and a couple of years later, I was at a conference, and I was standing in the lunch line, and this friend, this guy who’s just finished his degree in Asian Studies and got a job at Bowdoin College butts into the line, he looks at me and he says, “Okay, Jim, I’m ready.” So I say, “Well, Ready for what?” And he says, “You know, translate the Art of War.”

And without skipping a beat, I looked at him, and I said, “We can’t do that. That’s crazy.” Well, we did. We started, and we started very simply. We took the parts of the text that really were most meaningful for us, often the sort of maxims or slogans that everybody knows, and we translated those, and little by little, they showed that there was a lot of profundity in those parts that were more opaque, and that we didn’t really make a connection to.

Well, before too long, we had the whole thing translated, we submitted it to publishers, signed a contract, and now sold over a million copies in 11 languages. And that is called The Art of War, The Denma translation, that was the first book, which has essays and commentary that we wrote on the lines. So when that came out, I got asked to teach to people who were saying, “This is great stuff, but how do I actually do it in my life and in my leadership capacity?” So I responded to those requests over five or years and “The Rules of Victory,” is an attempt to summarize what I learned in responding to those people who asked the question, “How can I do this in my life?”

So it’s been a long journey. It’s never been like a franchise or a full-time gig, but it’s been constant, it’s been continuous and spread by natural connections, people like you who somehow connected to the book, saw some insights there that they thought would be helpful for them and had a genuine connection to it, and that led me to more work. Now that I’m kind of scaling down my work in the non-profit sector, I’m able to engage more with the teaching and the coaching around The Art of War, and it now leads me to this conversation with you.

Brett McKay: So The Art of War, I think, it’s a book that threw, I think young men, I remember in high school, I picked up a copy from Barnes & Noble thinking that it would provide some sort of insight on how to be effective and conquer the world. And as you said, I think as a young man, I was really drawn to those maxims or slogans, but what I hope this conversation does is it susses out, it really flushes out that bigger view, the profundity that you were talking about. Before we do, let’s talk about The Art of War itself, the history of it. It was authored, the author, you often see there is this guy named Sun Tzu. Who was Sun Tzu? Was it a real person? More than one person. It’s kind of like asking, “Who was Homer? Who wrote the The Odyssey?”

Jim Gimian: Yeah, yeah. Well, by way of background, the Art of War comes to us from what’s called the Warring States Period of China, roughly speaking 500 to 200 BC. It started in this period. What we know as China on the mainland was maybe 75 or more small kingdoms and fiefdoms spending a lot of time either repelling invasions from the North mostly or trying to take over each other. So there was a lot of ongoing battles between them and over some time, it sort of settled into about 15 larger kingdoms. And at the start of this time, there were no standing armies. If the king wanted to declare war, he challenged the opposing King to a kind of almost a dance in decked out chariots and someone would be declared the winner, and that’s how they take over the adjoining kingdom. But little by little, this need to develop standing armies when the king wanted to go to war, the King would conscript farm workers, and these were largely untrained, ignorant young men, and the King would hire a mercenary General.

And the role of this mercenary General was… By mercenary, meaning he might work for one kingdom, one campaign, and another kingdom the next. But what this mercenary King had to do was to take this band of ignorant farm boys and train them as an army. And largely, what we come to know as The Art of War now, is the means by which the mercenary General did that. The Sun Tzu, we refer to the text as the Sun Tzu because it is a body of work that probably emerged over several generations during this period, scholars themselves are mixed on the issue of, “Was there a real historical character?” Some say yes, some say maybe. Some say, no.

I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you from our point of view, this represents a kind of a lineage, a conversation that went on over that period, and from our point of view has continued to this day. Because if you read the literature, you will see not just the text itself, these 13-scanned chapters that are left, but oodles of commentaries by military leaders across the centuries who are joining in the conversation. So when we do a workshop, most often in a corporate setting, we actually described this as continuing that conversation, we’re grappling with these same issues of “How does one deal more effectively with conflict that’s all around us in human existence? How can we do that better? What means, what views, what methods lead to a more successful engagement with conflict?”

Brett McKay: So it was written, kinda came out about and during The Warring States Period, and because of that, that shapes the strategies or the insights that you find in the Art of War. So it’s a period where there’s lots of different kingdoms and they were constantly jockeying for position, one guy could be in charge for a little bit, then another guy, so it’s very uncertain. Conflict was always happening, and that shapes what we get in the Art of War.

Jim Gimian: And what does that remind you of? Is that a description of anything else in the modern day?

Brett McKay: Yeah, today. Yeah today, yeah.

Jim Gimian: That’s right, yeah.

Brett McKay: I mean, like, someone who owns… Who is a business owner, you’re competing, it’s constantly shifting, guys who are on top five years ago can be out of business today.

Jim Gimian: Exactly, exactly. And that’s one of the reasons why the lessons and the methodologies that were honed over hundreds of years in that setting in China, are so applicable and valuable because it emerged in a time very similar to ours. And so the view, the elements that created successful, and skillful techniques lead to the same now. The ability to respond to uncertainty, to be able to shift quickly, to respond to the changes. And I think one element that we emphasize is that during that time in China, the world view was that the world was not separate entities, but it was one interconnected, interdependent, constantly changing whole thing. And that’s another way in which our view has shifted over the last 40 or 50 years.

We used to see the world as individual things that we could act upon. Well, as things got more complex, as the whole uncertainty, and the emergence of complexity as a kind of foremost way of looking at the world took over our view, it didn’t work anymore. People had to throw out their strategic plans because they became useless within hours of being completed, because everything had changed already.

So the kinds of trainings of how to respond that come out of that time of seeing the world interconnected, now it’s a little easier for us to see the interconnection, social media, the internet, the weather patterns that are changing constantly. The way in which… Look at the supply chain issues in terms of inter-connectivity. So we’re able more genuinely to adopt a view, the least the skillful actions, it starts with that interconnected view.

Brett McKay: And we’ll talk more about that ’cause that’s a big important point from the Art of War that you’ve flushed out. But before we do, before we flush out this profoundity you want people to take away when they read your book, when you talk to people about the Art of War, ’cause I think a lot of people have maybe read quips of it. What do you think a lot of people get wrong or miss when they read The Art of War?

Jim Gimian: Well, first of all, I think we have to admit it’s a tough read. It can often be opaque and dense, and difficult to understand it. It doesn’t give up its treasures easily. So… And then a lot of people just dismiss it out of hand, ’cause it’s all about war and war-like and people wanna think they can deal with conflict in a whole different way. But I think, in my view over the years, the main thing is that as I just said, the skillful actions actually arise from seeing the world as an interconnected whole and the part that most people miss is that we as leaders are an integrated part of that interconnected whole.

So the mistake people make is they think they can extract a few of the lessons and then use that to sort of get over on others, they’re apart from that interconnected whole. They can act upon others, they can conquer and one up others using these little tricks. And the magic of those skills, which appear as tricks to people, comes from that view of interconnectedness, and if you don’t have that, then there’s a power in things like employing shih, this great sort of central view of working with the energy that’s in systems in the world, is not possible. It’s like any kind of discipline where you see somebody dip in, quickly learn some of the language and then start teaching it. You kind of have a feeling that they’ve never genuinely learned the deeper discipline, they’ve never really integrated the deeper lessons, and therefore the maxims, and the tricks, don’t have the profundity, you can kind of feel it.

Brett McKay: So I think you argue that to really understand The Art of War, you have to understand this framework, it’s a tri-part framework of Heaven, Earth General. So let’s talk about Heaven first. What does Heaven mean in the Art of War?

Jim Gimian: Well, I think the first thing to take note of is the Heaven, Earth and General framework appears in a lot of places in Chinese philosophy and literature, and it appears in the very first chapter of The Art of War as the middle of what the first chapter calls, “The Five.” The first chapter is about an overview and how to take assessments, how to actually look at a situation and see, “Well, do you stand a chance of dealing with conflict in a victorious way?” What are the obstacles? What can you learn?

So The Five starts with the Dao, which is that sense of how things really are, the rules, the law. When you apply that to a situation, what the Dao means is, “Is there coherence between the leader and the army?” Or the leader and the team, if it’s a corporate setting. Is there a common culture, context, language and view that gives cohesion and strength? Then it goes into, number two is Heaven, number three is Earth, number four is a the General, and then number five of The Five is what’s called, Methods. And that’s the way a General actually organizes and orders, and develops an army.

So in the middle, you have these three, Heaven. Now, first, let’s talk about how a General regards these three. For a General, Heaven is the weather. Because if you’re gonna move an army, you have to know what conditions will you be facing that are weather-related. Earth in a military setting is terrain. So what’s the ground of the situation? What ground am I moving in the army through? What will that require? And the General, the General is literally the person who’s gotta make the decisions joining the realities of the weather and the terrain.

So really, if you take a step back and apply this principle to any leadership setting, leaders basically are faced with the same situation. Heaven can be aspirations, the vision, what you have to accomplish, the future that you’re trying to bring abrow. Earth is the conditions of the situation, the realities of whatever the setting is. If you’re talking about taking a team through a successful campaign to launch a new product, “Oh, what’s the ground of that? What’s the competition? What’s your capability to produce and market? What’s your capability to actually successfully launch? And then as the leader, you’ve got to assess how you have a goal, how you inevitably have obstacles or resistance, on this notion of the Earth.

And then how do you move forward? So I think it’s easiest to understand something like Heaven or Earth or General in the context of how it works as a system altogether.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a words from our sponsors. And now back to the show. And another way of looking at this framework is that Heaven is view, Earth is practice, and General is action. And it’s interesting this view part, right? So Heaven, view, how we see the world. It reminded me of another military strategist, John Boyd, who developed the…

Jim Gimian: Oh yeah.

Brett McKay: The OODA loop.

Jim Gimian: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The view part is the orient, right? And he said that orient part of this OODA loop thing of observe-orient-decide-act, orient is how you see the world. It’s all these mental models and your culture could contribute to it. And the goals that you had going into a decision and the orient phase that drove how you would act or make decisions. And then it would… It was a cycle. It would just cycle through. You’d make an action, you would see what happened with your action and then you’d put that back into the orient phase and then decide again and act and over and over again. And Sun Tzu was basically saying the same thing thousands of years ago.

Jim Gimian: That’s right. And of course, you know if you’re a student of John Boyd and the OODA loop, you know that he was a great student of The Art of War and integrated a lot of that into his development of fighter pilot training. I mean, he’s regarded as the founder of many of the basics of jet fighting strategy and action. And what you described is exactly what he taught.

Brett McKay: And he also talked about this idea, you have to see things holistically because like the stuff that he talked about was used later on in counterinsurgencies, right? And he said, “In order to be an effective counter insurgent, you have to… You can’t just think about the battles. You also have to think about, well, if we win this battle, that might have some negative consequences.” And so we have to do it in a certain way and we have to maybe win the hearts and minds of the people. That’s another way you could go about it. And so I think this is a great segue to talk about Sun Tzu’s idea of taking the whole. So we’ve been talking about that. When you’re viewing the world, you wanna see the world in a connected whole. But let’s flesh out, where else do you see this idea of taking the whole in The Art of War?

Jim Gimian: Well, I think the best, simplest way to understand that principle is, if you look back at that mercenary General’s challenge is king had conscripted soldiers from off the farms. And so in fact, the soldiers were farmers. And at a certain point in a world that was interconnected, if you conquer the neighboring land by killing all the soldiers, there’ll be no one left to produce food when you take over that territory. So there’s a lesson about the interconnectedness. We have to see all the implications of how we respond to conflict because that employee in the company you take over is somebody you’re gonna rely on to produce the products of value of the company that you just took over. We have so many examples from people in the workshops that we do where they have actually shown, we have a slide that shows farmer equals soldier with the circle in the line through it saying, kill a soldier, kill a farmer who’ve used that single slide to go to two of their reports, say one in production and one in accounting who are squabbling and fighting about when the report’s gonna happen and what’s the format.

And the leaders showing them that they need each other to be successful. So dealing with conflict has to include all the repercussions in order to have a meaningful, successful outcome. And that’s the taking whole, which goes right back to the most iconic lines in The Art of War about the 100 victories in 100 battles isn’t the most skillful, subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful. And that’s the kind of seed syllable of the whole notion of taking whole.

Brett McKay: What is… Yeah, what is the… People love quoting that line. But I think it gets misunderstood. ‘Cause I think it means like when people read that as, well, you gotta figure out a way with duplicity and some intrigue to beat the guy without actually fighting. But it sounds like there’s something more going on there, the way you describe it in the book.

Jim Gimian: Yeah, I think the most common way for us to understand it nowadays is as things have gotten to be more complex, we have to look at solutions as being more systemic actions. So for example, you have a team of 10-15 and there’s maybe a very problematic, challenging, difficult employee in that team. And the conventional way is to go at that challenge directly. Whereas in terms of dealing with a complex system, every one of the people has relationships with each other. So dealing with the shaping that team, putting certain sort of bumpers and goals, mutual goals in line, requires each one of those people to conform and work as part of the system. And that creates, as we’ve seen so many times, a situation where that difficult or problematic person sees that that’s not the place for them. The team is going in a certain direction, the company is going in a certain direction and they would be better off somewhere else. They decide to seek another place. Could be another place within the company, another department. It could be another company altogether.

But it’s an example that comes right out of the employing, sure, that is how to form and shape the ground of a situation to address a conflict or a difficulty and doesn’t really require subterfuge, but it’s kind of an indirect warfare. Something that The Art of War is very well known for, indirect warfare, but it’s just another way of saying dealing with the situation systemically. So I think that the issue of subterfuge is really a misconception. It does derive from the way The Art of War talks about deception. But [chuckle] deception is a whole range of behaviors and the extreme range that people often default to, the kind that may be required in dealing with an enemy that means you lethal harm is really not the situation most of us find ourselves in, in life. So there are a lot of more plastic ways of dealing with systemic change that don’t require those being trickier, deceptive in a way that’s calls into question ones moralistic behavior. I think that’s an exaggeration and unnecessary.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it can mean something not as conniving as people think. I think people use it all the time without even knowing.

Jim Gimian: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So I think the big takeaway from the view is, so the view is just how you see the world. And I think an important thing to understand is for Sun Tzu, you gotta take the whole, you had to see the big picture and understand that you are part of that picture. So the decisions you make, you act on the world, but the world is gonna act back on you. And…

Jim Gimian: That’s right.

Brett McKay:The world is gonna change because of your decisions and as a consequence of that, you have to update your view. So there’s no… You really can’t have a static world of view. You can have guiding principles that can shape that big view, but you have to have some flexibility on just updating your mental models when you see the world change.

Jim Gimian: Well said.

Brett McKay: And I think we, basically what we did is we went to Earth next, right? We kind of connected Heaven to Earth, right? Heaven is view and Earth is the terrain, the situation, kind of the specifics.

Jim Gimian: Right.

Brett McKay: What we find ourselves and that will dictate what we do in order to bring about…

Jim Gimian: What your action is.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Bring about Heaven basically. Yeah.

Jim Gimian: Right.

Brett McKay: And an important part of this Earth component and you dig in deep in the book, is this idea of shih. Now it’s pronounced… It’s spelled S-H-I-H, I believe.

Jim Gimian: It is. That’s the… That’s the translator’s transliteration English, but it is pronounced, Sher.

Brett McKay: Shih. So this is a really important concept ’cause you really, you hammer this home in the book. So what is Shih, and why is it important to understand what Shih is?

Jim Gimian: Well, it’s a natural outcome of seeing the world as an interconnected whole that parts move other parts, it’s a wonderfully rich and helpful idea and it’s so rich, it’s why we didn’t translate it in our book. You know, it’s probably, if you look at the various translations of The Art of War, there are 20 different words used when Shih appears, words like energy or configuration or advantage or momentum, things that are familiar to us. But we just felt that to convey to the reader the richness of this concept, we would keep and retain its Chinese and carry all those meanings forward. But fundamentally, Shih is talking about how any system has energy within it and a pattern of how that energy moves and that energy can form a particular configuration of forces that affects effective power.

So that’s one way in which Shih describes a phenomenal world. And the text has wonderful images from the natural world that it uses things like how a meandering stream in the high mountain planes then turns into a tumultuous rushing river with such force that it can toss rocks about. That’s one of the lines right out of the text, it tosses rocks about, and then that same water becomes amassed behind a dam which is another way that power is accumulated in a certain configuration and can be released and focused and used for the leader. So the examples of this for us, in addition to the physical world are things like, football is a perfect example of trying to discern the weak spot on the opposition and amass the powers and the offenses configuration to strike that open and weak spot.

We have broad concepts like leverage or the tipping point popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, how alignment of forces within a situation make quick action possible that wasn’t before. One of our kind of thought partners in this is a politician on the national scale. And before finding The Art of War he used to talk about is the situation ripe to take a particular action? Are the forces aligned? And now he talks to his staff in the language of The Art of War, they talk about the Shih. And looking at the configuration depending on for example, at one point, not that long ago, maybe a little over a year, it was about when to start bringing the attack message about China into the national dialogue. Now there’s been a longstanding symbiotic relationship and close relationship whether we’ve admitted it or not in terms of, are iPhones made in China, or just a simplest example.

But at a certain point it became political advantage measured in how many dollars it would raise in fundraising to start bashing the Chinese. But the calculation for the politicians was if they came out too soon and it wasn’t the right timing, they wouldn’t get the donations back from that line. So they had to kind of calculate when was the right moment. Now that’s one possible way of sort of seeing about reading the situation, the alignment of the power in that situation. And as the text talks about in terms of employing Shih the good leader waits for the moment where the action is like rolling around rock down a steep hill, doesn’t take much effort because that’s what that rock wants to do, pulled down by gravity.

Brett McKay: So Shih, it’s hard to translate, but it’s the juice, it’s the mojo. When I was reading the book and I saw Shih, I was thinking momentum. It’s the momentum that shows up in the terrain in the Earth in the circumstances you find yourself in and you really can’t control it. But a good leader he can nudge it. He can recognize it and be ready to take advantage of it when it does appear. So we’ve talked about Heaven and Earth or view and practice, let’s talk about action. And you say that before you take action or skilled action, it’s important to engage in what you called knowing, which is a direct ongoing relationship and connection with the elements of your life.

And we can know by using our senses and picking up on patterns, but there are challenges and limitations to knowing, and I think everyone’s heard about cognitive biases and how they can hinder our view, and if our view is clouded, then we can’t take right action. What The Art of War says is that victory is created long before the battle arises. So before we take skillful action, we have to try to get our thinking, our view as clear as possible. But then I think too action is also the way to figure out if your view’s correct or not. Right? It’s like it’s feedback.

Jim Gimian: That’s right. It’s a feedback loop. Just like Boyd talked about too.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So you take action to see if it’s right and it might be right, it might be wrong. And then you just take that feedback and then you put it back into your view. You take a look at the terrain, the practices that you’re using, and then modify, and then you try action again. And that was a good point you made through the way you learn about action, a really effective way to learn about action is looking at the stories of other individuals, leaders who took action so you can see what worked and what didn’t work for them. So that’s one of the reasons I love reading biographies. It’s a way to see action in action.

Jim Gimian: Yeah, no, I think that’s really great. I think there’s nothing, nothing more powerful and we’ve learned this than the story and narrative to move people. Oftentimes, we’re asked for examples about parts of what we’re right about in the rules of victory. And when you give an example, if it’s not a story and it winds up being a sort of one directional, didactic, almost solid lesson that somebody either has to repeat or they’ll fail. And if you tell a story, a person can see themselves in that and they can see the possible skillful action that may arise for them in a similar situation. One of the great lines people will pick up on in The Art of War is that victories cannot be transmitted in advance. So you can’t tell somebody exactly what the best action in their story’s gonna be, but a story shared is an example that can widen the possible options for another person. So it’s about helping somebody discover insight rather than giving ’em a prescribed set of rules that they have to follow.

Brett McKay: So what’s one thing you think listeners can start doing today to better understand The Art of War and start implementing this view-practice-action mindset in their lives?

Jim Gimian: It’s interesting, you put it that way. When we do the workshops, usually they’re two-day workshops we do in corporate settings. One of the first things we say is you’re gonna hear a lot of new terminology and ideas. Don’t try to swallow it all. Just look for one thing, just one thing that speaks to you, that makes you go, “Hmm, that makes sense to me and I can see how it could have a positive benefit in my life.” And that one thing, in fact, in terms of the way The Art of War is structured, gives you access to the whole thing. We described the text as holistic and fractal, that it’s so integrated, it’s so repetitive that any part of it that speaks to you gives you a real genuine entryway to all of the rest of it.

So that’s what we encourage people to do. It can be one of the maxims that you described. You know what we describe them as slogans, because they’re simple sentences that can trigger deep meaning and connection. You know, it could be something like soldier farmer that triggers the ability to take whole when you’re confronted with a challenging situation rather than reverting to force to see how your solution can be inclusive of others’ aspiration. So I think the other thing, following along our discussion of how challenges and failed actions lead to more learning, I think one way of starting off with making The Art of War more a genuine part of your life is whenever that moment arises for you could be an obstacle, conflict, seeming intractable situation, be curious about your view. How are you seeing the situation?

What limitations is your view putting on the situation? Just kind of almost a contemplative curiosity. And as long as that’s done in a way that you have some kind of openness to the interconnectedness of the world around you, some kind of basic ongoing curiosity. And I think you know, a sense of making friends with yourself, learning how your emotions and your mind work, whatever means that is for you, then it’s possible to make a genuine connection to start being part of the dialogue, as I talked about earlier, to start entering into this lineage of people who are looking to find a different way of dealing with conflict, a different way of dealing with obstacles as a leader.

Brett McKay: Well, Jim, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Jim Gimian: Well, there are two books. In fact, there’s The Art of War: The Denma Translation, and that, as I said, has a couple of background essays and some commentary. We do our own line by line commentary. As I said earlier, a lot of the literature has commentary by generals throughout history. And rather than reproduce those as most other translations, we just thought we’d add our perspective to what these lines in the texts could mean for us in our lives in modern day. Then of course, there’s Rules of Victory, the book and The Rules of Victory website, which presents both the way we approach the teaching of workshops and also the coaching that I do.

And there’s another resource out there that’s not ours, but I would recommend for someone, Professor Andrew Wilson at the Naval War College has relatively short, I think it’s called Great Courses available through Audible. And he does a wonderful job of presenting what The Art of War is historically. He doesn’t go where we go in terms of how can you actually do this in your life, but that’s not that’s not his job. But it’s a wonderful articulation of the meaning and the history and very, very user friendly. So that’s a resource that we recommend.

Brett McKay: We had Andrew on the podcast a while back ago.

Jim Gimian: Oh, you’re kidding.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s Episode 664, Masters of The Art of War.

Jim Gimian: Oh, that’s great. So you had this conversation before.

Brett McKay: A bit of it. We talked about von Clausewitz, we talked about the Peloponnesian War disidentes.

Jim Gimian: Oh, that’s terrific. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Well, Jim Gimian, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jim Gimian: A pleasure for me. All the best.

Brett McKay: My guest there is Jim Gimian. He’s the co-author of the book, The Rules of Victory. It’s available on You find more information about the book at the website, Also check at our show notes at where you find links to resources. We’re gonna delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Every week, Kate and I work hard to distill interesting and actual insights from the authors and leaders in a variety of fields and present them in an engaging fluff and filler-free episode that comes in under an hour. If you get something out of the show, please consider taking a minute to leave a review for it, helps more people discover The AOM podcast and we greatly appreciate it.

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