Discipline – Leadership (Part 4) with Plato and Sun Tzu

John Garang

John Garang de Mabior of South Sudan

Ssu-ma Ch`ien gives the following biography of Sun Tzu: [1] —

Sun Tzu Wu was a native of the Ch`i State. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, [2] King of Wu. Ho Lu said to him: “I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?” Sun Tzu replied: “You may.” Ho Lu asked: “May the test be applied to women?” The answer was again in the affirmative, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each. He then bade them all take spears in their hands, and addressed them thus: “I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?” The girls replied: Yes. Sun Tzu went on: “When I say “Eyes front,” you must look straight ahead. When I say “Left turn,” you must face towards your left hand. When I say “Right turn,” you must face towards your right hand. When I say “About turn,” you must face right round towards your back.” Again the girls assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order “Right turn.” But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order “Left turn,” whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded. Now the king of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the following message: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded.” Sun Tzu replied: “Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.” Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying: “Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.”

Excerpt From: Tzu, Sun. “The Art of War.” iBooks.


Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu

Leaders who will succeed need to be disciplined and also ensure discipline amongst those they lead, for it is only then that the State can move towards what has been envisioned. A disciplined state according to Sun Tzu can face any obstacle. How do leaders ensure this discipline? Sun Tzu advocates for instructions from a leader to be unambiguous. This can only happen when the leaders themselves have clear vision. It also follows that there must be clear reward and punishment systems. When people do well, they should be rewarded, when people fail, they should be punished appropriately. This should be done without recourse to favouritism. Indeed when the king who decided to put Sun Tzu to test, failed in his attempt to save his favourite concubines, the message became clear that no one will be spared. Justice must be served. There would have been no other way to have drilled the soldiers to perfection.  We can look at societies today who strive to maintain discipline through the rule of law, whereby anyone found wanting is called to give account. We have seen heads of multi-billion dollar companies tried and some imprisoned. We know the state of those countries. On the other hand in many African countries where the rich and powerful seem to be above the law, with blatant and shocking disregard for the law; things have become chaotic due to indiscipline resulting from injustice. When those who work hard get no rewards but wallow in poverty, but the undisciplined are rewarded with wealth and honour, the State is sure to degenerate. Unless this trend is reversed, there can be no progress, indeed implosion looms.

Plato describes how indolence and discontent can arise thus:

There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts.

What are they?

Wealth, I said, and poverty.

How do they act?

The process is as follows: When a potter becomes rich, will he, think you, any longer take the same pains with his art?

Certainly not.

He will grow more and more indolent and careless?

Very true.

And the result will be that he becomes a worse potter?

Yes; he greatly deteriorates.

But, on the other hand, if he has no money, and cannot provide himself with tools or instruments, he will not work equally well himself, nor will he teach his sons or apprentices to work equally well.

Certainly not.

Then, under the influence either of poverty or of wealth, workmen and their work are equally liable to degenerate?

That is evident.

Here, then, is a discovery of new evils, I said, against which the guardians will have to watch, or they will creep into the city unobserved.

What evils?

Wealth, I said, and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.

Excerpt From: Plato. “The Republic.” iBooks.

In the excerpt above from The Republic, Plato describes how evil it is for a once skillful and disciplined workforce to become undisciplined when riches are acquired. How much more evil is it when the starting point is letting the slothful acquire riches, and the disciplined to languish in poverty? It is bad enough that a competent fellow becomes rich and indolent, but we live in societies where those with no capacity at all from the beginning are living in opulence. When Socrates was asked about States such as these, he responded “But how simple of you to use the term State at all of any but our own!”; by this he meant such places could not consider themselves as true States, as there can be no unity in such “States” – he went further thus “I would allow the State to increase so far as is consistent with unity; that I think, is the proper limit.

Thus, it should be noted that a State is not the geographical entity but the unity of purpose which stems from a clear shared vision, administered with justice and discipline. For developing States especially African States, this must be grasped and practiced for nationhood to occur.

Inside King Solomon's Temple

Inside King Solomon’s Temple

Let us conclude with what King Solomon says:

Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.” Proverbs 10:17


Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher