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The ancient art of leadership Vincent Tremayne suggests that, to provide the best patient care, nurse leaders should adapt five principles contained in a 2,500-year-old guide to Chinese military strategy


The way

‘The way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership.’

方 法

Tzu recommends that there is consensus among leaders, colleagues and groups working together. Vigorous debate is welcome, and even essential, according to this shared ethos so that a consensus that optimises success can be reached. The ‘way’ of an organisation permeates its working environment and encourages staff. Unresolved conflict paralyses the ‘way’ however and anticipates its downfall.


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But The Art of War can inspire people who work in non-military fields as well, even those providing modern healthcare services. Of course, many readers will agree with Pediani and Walsh (2000) that enough models, formulas and frameworks have been devised in nursing already. Others may ask why they should seek advice from an ancient Chinese manual that is more commonly studied by politicians, business executives and military strategists. But, if nurse leaders are willing to imagine that they are generals fighting for the best in nursing care (Mendell 1995), they may find many of Tzu’s classic strategies and, in particular, his ‘five principles’, useful. Tzu specifies that any person or organisation can examine these five principles, namely the Way,


The weather

‘Heaven encompasses yin and yang, and the constraints of the seasons.’

天 气

Nurse leaders must understand and prepare for uncontrollable changes in their environments. Perfect conditions are difficult to find, so they must be ready when conditions deteriorate or opportunities arise, making adjustments quickly to the best of each new situation. This can be related to pandemic planning for example, or bed capacity management throughout the year.


the Weather, the Terrain, Leadership and Discipline (Tzu 1994, 1995), to determine their chances for success. Explanations of these principles are listed below. Tzu suggests that all leaders have heard of these principles, adding that those who understand them will be victorious, while those who do not will fail (Tzu 2005). Whether preparing a company of troops to cross a battlefield or providing strong nursing leadership so that colleagues can provide the best health care for their patients, Tzu’s five principles can offer valuable insights into what is takes to succeed nm

Vincent Tremayne DipHE, BSc(Hons), RN is a staff nurse at Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust

The terrain

‘Earth encompasses far or near, expansive or confined, fatal or tenable terrain.’

地 形

Tzu advises that, once good generals have assessed the safety of their terrain and environment, they can calculate how many troops they need and how to position them best. Applied to nursing, this can mean that nurse leaders must ensure that clinical areas are staffed according to patient requirements and anticipated changes in nursing workload.


AT SOME TIME between 750 and 200 BC, a Chinese general called Sun Tzu compiled a text that became generally known in the English speaking world as The Art of War (Trellis 2004). This remains the oldest known military text in Chinese literature (Hou 1997) and, although it consists of only 13 chapters and 5,600 words, it is considered to be the foundation on which all modern military strategies are based (Ho and Choi 1997, Wee 2000). Indeed, Rarick (1996) suggests that Napoleon Bonaparte had studied The Art of War before he embarked on many of his military campaigns in Europe. Long regarded as a classic work of general strategy, tactics and logistics (McKay 1996), Tzu’s work is arguably as appropriate today as it was more than 2,000 years ago.

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References Ho SK, Choi ASF (1997) Achieving marketing success through Sun Tzu’s Art of Warfare. Marketing Intelligence and Planning. 15, 1, 38-47. Hou WC (1997) Fighting talk. People Management. 3, 21, 40-44. McKay J (1996) Tobacco: the third world war. Advice from General Sun Tzu. Thorax. 51, 6, 562-563. Mendell RL (1995) Declaring war on parking lot crime. Security Management. 39, 12, 46-49. Pediani R, Walsh M (2000) Changing practice: are memes the answer? Nursing Standard. 14, 24, 36-40. Rarick CA (1996) Ancient Chinese advice for modern business strategists. Advanced Management Journal. 61, 1, 38-43. Trellis A (2004) Lessons from The Art of War. Builder. 27, 7, 81-82. Tzu S (1994) The Art of War. Westview Press, Oxford. Tzu S (2005) The Art of War. Shambhala, Boston MA. Wee CW (2000) Perspectives from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. World at Work Journal. 9, 2, 51-59. Wong YY, Maher TE, Lee G (1998) The strategy of an ancient warrior: an inspiration for international managers. Multinational Business Review. 6, 1, 83-93.

General Sun Tzu



‘The general encompasses wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage and strictness.’

领 导

Tzu warns that reliance on wisdom alone does not make teams stable and the exercise of only benevolence results in weakness. He adds that fixation with credibility, or trust, is foolish, that dependence on courage leads to violence, and that excessive strictness of command results in cruelty (Wong et al 1998). According to Tzu, not all these qualities are equally important. He ranks wisdom first and benevolence second, and he places strictness last because, he suggests, disciplinary action should be resorted to only when there are no alternatives. Credibility and courage are considered of equal importance. Tzu summarises by stating that, when people have all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, only then can they lead.

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‘The laws encompass organisation and regulation, the Tao of command, and the management of logistics.’

纪 律

The discipline refers to organisational structures that provide co-ordination and control for the delivery of care. It goes beyond the simple matters of arranging stores and supplies for clinical areas, and extends to the total nursing operation. This means that colleagues are in a chain of command to ensure that there are experienced superior officers to lead them. It also means that there are sufficient supplies so that teams can carry out their battles for best patient care efficiently.


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Ancient art of leadership  
Ancient art of leadership