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Book reading: Sun Tsu's Art of War

When I became a technical lead I wanted to feed my brain with as many techniques and principles on how to be an effective leader. I read enough books on this that I think I'm comfortable writing a little bit about the books. What better way to start this than with a classic, which is a translated version of The Art of War by Sun Tsu. Note though that I don't like writing spoilers for a book, so instead I'd write about what I remember and what came to me while reading, immediately after reading the book, and weeks/months later. Let's dive into the book and what it meant to me.

Thinking like a leader

The key takeaway for me reading the passages (which reads like a poem but is really a field manual of sorts) is that, as a leader, you should be the most aware of your surroundings and your role in the situation. Knowing when to act, how to act, what goal to pursue, what winning looks like, which enemy to engage -- almost all of this comes from situational awareness. The more useful information you have about the terrain, your enemies, your allies, your resources, and your mission, you increase the odds of planning better, executing more effectively, and achieving goals more predictably. There's a lot of indirect ways these are being said in the book and there's quite a bit of hidden wisdom I had to tease out -- even though it's a quick read, it's certainly worth reading again regularly.

It's not only showing you what to think about as a leader, but it tries to show you the "meta" approach to thinking. Thinking about the way you think gives an insight into whether you have blind spots, biases, un-sound assumptions, and whether you're thinking through things effectively. Knowing when for example you don't have enough information or when you don't have enough resources and critically judging your decisions after the fact (usually after some failure or unexpected development) how to act and remediate the situation stems from your introspective practice.

That said though, leaders are usually part of a team, and there's good passages about that too.

Building your team

Loyalty and trustworthiness are quite big issues not just in the ancient world but even today. When do you know if the team around you has your back? Are they going to endeavour you to fail in your attempts to lead? Are they unhappy with your leadership style? Do they think you ruthless and are therefore afraid to speak their mind? Are they going to find the first opportunity to "throw you under the bus" or do they feel like you will do that the first time you have a chance to do so?

Building morale and ensuring continuous success is a hard endeavour for any leader. If you're a manager, you have resources at your disposal that someone else has entrusted upon you to deploy to affect the best outcomes. If you're a non-managing leader, then you have the responsibility of defining the plan for a vision that you may or may not have come up with that's aligned with the overall mission.

Getting your team to "buy in" and be part of the whole is probably the single hardest and most important job for the leader. The flip side to that would be when to recognise that the team you have isn't the right team for the job.

The key measurement of a leader's success is how successful the team is. There's a lot of philosophy in the book around what the actual role of the leader -- when/whether to be in front or the rear, how to command/inspire, when to reward good performance, and how to run the team sustainably.


I found myself reading this book and wanting to write notes, but I felt it would degrade the experience. I instead "inhaled" this book for a couple of nights then reflected on what stuck a few days afterwards.

What came out were some fairly critical questions I've been asking when deciding on what work to do with the team. When I should be decisive and make strong decisions and when to provide some leeway for more exploration. In my particular case it changed the way I saw planning: treating problems as having some specific missions to accomplish and projects being plans flexible enough to achieve victory. I saw projects as more definitive tools that have a start and end and specific goals to meet and tasks to perform.

I even saw myself applying this to my own life. I didn't need a team to manage myself and my resources. If I was commanding an army of 1 (myself) then how would I apply my skills and talents to make the most impact? How do I work towards my mission regularly? Do I have a vision that I'd like to make a reality and do I have the resources and plan to make it happen? Which battles to do I fight and which territory should I occupy?

In the end, there wasn't a lot of questions after reading the book, but there certainly was enough wisdom there wanting to be applied.


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