How to handle difficult people: Self-Leadership Lesson from the Art of War by Sun Tzu

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a classic that I would recommend anyone aspiring to lead others and themselves to read. Sun Tzu was a Chinese General who had compiled his thoughts on warfare into a single document. He saw that the study of warfare is essential in obtaining victory for any General. Although the book was written in China over 2,000 years ago, its timeless principles of leading soldiers into battle and understanding the psyche of opponents are still relevant today. In my study of leadership and self-development, I found the principles in this book to be extremely instrumental in leading oneself and also others.

There are thirteen chapters in the book but for the purposes of this post, we will only analyze the first chapter which is called Estimates…

So, let us begin:

The Importance of Self- Leadership

Sun Tzu started the chapter off by saying “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” When I read this statement the first thing that came to mind was the Grim Reaper. Just to fantasize a little bit, if he came into human flesh, no doubt every person you know would want to study him. Maybe just maybe, we would find a possible weakness in him and further postpone his date with us. Who knows? We might actually study him so well that we would know how to live forever. So, anyway, in the same light, the study of leadership is very much similar to what Sun Tzu was talking about. It is of vital importance that leadership be studied because it could well determine whether your children die of starvation or feel bad that they are throwing away too much food. Although the study of leadership is important at a business level, I specifically emphasize that it should be studied at an individual level too. The study of leadership is an on-going process. It neither ends in the classroom nor at the solitude of a thinking table. It is no surprise that in life, whether we like or not, we are bound to meet some ‘difficult’ people. People we absolutely don’t like very much. It might be that co-worker who always tries to belittle the work you do or it might be your boss who clearly doesn’t appreciate the effort you put in the company. Sometimes it might be a parent or a child. It doesn’t matter. The lesson on self-leadership I learned from Sun Tzu’s book is helpful in many circumstances.

1.    Don’t be predictable but be adaptable

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

Bruce Lee

Water is a very interesting chemical compound. Unlike fire that is confrontational, it adapts to situations and pacifies. When it’s hot, it evaporates, when it’s cold, it condenses into ice, and when the temperature is temperate, it retains its natural position. So, don’t be predictable. It’s not that ‘difficult’ people don’t know that they are difficult, they know. That’s why they never listen even if you talk to them over and over again. They expect you to react.

The general once said, “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity, when active, incapacity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away that you are near, Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him”

The key leadership lesson here is that you must never be predictable. This can be applied more specifically in the aspect of self-leadership. If you recall, in my previous post Perception Part 2, I underscored the importance of strategic thinking when it comes to self-leadership. What this point, therefore, tells us is that when it comes to leading oneself, you must not abide by the picture that you present to people. Sun Tzu further states, “When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him…Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” If you read the Book, Lincoln the Unknown by Dale Carnegie, you would find that almost everyone on President Lincoln’s cabinet thought that they could do a better job than him. So how did he respond to that? Through silence… Instead of directly confronting the bitter criticisms, he let them sour only to disapprove them by his actions later on. So, don’t be predictable. It’s easy to take advantage of a predictable person because you know their reactions. When you are dealing with difficult people, don’t confront them head-on. The activist Rigoberta Menchu once said, “I am like a drop of water on a rock. After drip, drip, dripping in the same place, I begin to leave a mark, and I leave my mark in many people’s hearts.” So, your actions are the drips in this scenario. Every time you keep quiet when you should react, work hard when someone thinks you are lazy, and so on, you leave a mark on the hearts of people. It’s called emotional intelligence. But we will talk about that later.

2.    Be a Visionary

Sun Tzu further listed five factors that contribute to the success of any warfare. These were Moral Influence, Weather, Terrain, Command, and Doctrine. For the purposes of this blog, we will only focus on Moral Influence, Command, and Doctrine.

He said of Moral Influence that, “…that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.” This talks of allegiance by the followers to a cause or vision set by the leader. People submit to a vision and not to leaders. Therefore, it follows that if a leader has no vision, the allegiance of his followers is based on variables that are likely to change. That’s why no one ever named a street after Michael Jackson. Yes, he was the King of Pop and a consequential man in his field but that’s about it. Now, compare him to Martin Luther King Jr… (the man has a street named after him). This shows that his life’s work and vision are still relevant even today. Applying this to our hypothetical ‘difficult’ person, we can come up with a lot of conclusions. One of these is that people generally respect other people who have a vision of what they want. Although you should avoid confrontations at all costs, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have your day in court. (I didn’t mean that literally!). You should have your voice heard and your vision duly recognized. The other person, no matter the level of his hostility, should know who you are and what you want. They may not like you or treat you right but you must teach them how to respect you through deliberately displaying what you would like to see change.

3.    Be Sincere

Sun Tzu said of Command that, “the general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness.” What we derive from this is that a leader need not be the smartest but however, he needs to be wise and be able to recognize changing circumstances. His sincerity means that the people he leads should have confidence in him; That he is a man of his words and will reward those who deserve merit. Then humanity means that he should be able to empathize with people and the personal struggles that they go through. For him to understand those he leads; empathy should be a top priority. Then, in matters were courage is concerned, the leader should be able to seize opportunities whenever he can afford them. Then, finally, his level of strictness should ensure that discipline is fervently enforced. For the achievement of objectives becomes extremely difficult without the element of discipline. So, in our context, this means that you must take the first step to show sincerity if you want to win that ‘difficult’ person over. You shouldn’t be sarcastic about it. You have to show that you really do care about the person although you are not treated very well. At work, this might mean being disciplined enough to go to work on time for meetings. At home, it might mean staying true to the word you promised your son that you would watch his show. Society naturally respects people who are sincere and honest but surprisingly enough they never tell them. That is why people praise the good things a person did after they die. It’s because the guilt eats them up. And that is why Malcolm X said, “I want to be remembered as someone who was sincere. Even if I made mistakes, they were made in sincerity. If I was wrong, I was wrong in sincerity.” So, be sincere.

Malcolm X

4.    Know the Limits

Then finally, we will now analyze Doctrine. Sun Tzu said of it as follows: “By doctrine, I mean organization, control, assignment of appropriate ranks to officers, regulation of supply routes, and the provision of principal items used by the army.”

This all has to do with prioritizing. Self-leadership means knowing how to take time seriously and organizing yourself in a disciplined manner. If you are leading an organization, for example, this may mean assigning the proper tasks to people who are particularly good at what they do. If a man is good at something, give him tasks that are appropriate to his line of work. That’s how I interpret what Sun Tzu meant here. Now, going back to our ‘difficult’ person, I think this means you have to know the limits. Don’t take yourself too far but at the same time, don’t push others too much. Now, this is particularly hard to do if the ‘difficult’ person is someone you are leading. Perhaps someone in an inferior position like a child or an employee. You may assume that they are not applying themselves enough and in most cases, you may be right. However, identifying a problem is necessarily curing it. For example, I have heard a lot of parents say to their kids, ‘Why can’t you be like me, when I was your age, I used to do such and such.’ This approach almost always never works because the person it is addressed to will undoubtedly feel alienated. People like to be understood. So, just don’t talk about what you want to achieve for someone and how they should pat you on the back. But, make your voice heard to them and try to make them understand through their point of view. If you do that and they still don’t get it, just leave them alone. Now, that’s where you have to know your limits.

So, to conclude, nobody likes to deal with a ‘difficult’ person not even ‘difficult’ people themselves. Often times, it is a cat and mouse game of whose evil is the worst. Parents will say their kids are ‘difficult’ and the kids will practically say the same thing. Someone might say my boyfriend never listens to me no matter how many times I say the same thing over and over again. And the cycle goes on and on just like that. I believe that Sun Tzu’s principles can be of help. They are still ripe for application in the corporate world, family life, and on every level of human interaction. I hope that these lessons from the Art of War have been helpful to you. If not, feel free to contact vigilante scholar for more information and advice for your particular situation. Until then, Good Luck!

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