Monday, September 1, 2008

The Way of the General - Part IX

Instruction and Direction

A policy of instruction and direction means those above educate those below, not saying anything that is unlawful and not doing anything that is immoral, for what is done by those above is observed by those below.

To indulge oneself yet instruct others is contrary to proper government; to correct oneself and then teach others is in accord with proper government. Therefore true leaders first rectify themselves and only after that do they promulgate their directives. If they are not upright themselves, their directives will not be followed, resulting in disorder.

Therefore the Way of leadership puts education and direction before punishment. To send people to war without education is tantamount to throwing them away.

The Imperial Prime Minister of Han, Cao Cao was one of the greatest men of his time. He managed to wrest control over all of Northern China against all odds. It was not by accident, that he commanded the respect and obedience of his army and the populace in general. The following incident illustrates his qualities as a leader.

Be You Ever So High, The Law is Above You
It was the year AD198. With the Han Empire in its’ dying throes, rebellious warlords rose like serpents daring to strike at the Imperial Throne. One such rebel was Zhang Xiu.

The Imperial Prime Minister, Cao Cao himself, led an army to crush the rebellion. It was summer and as his army passed through a wheat region, and the grain was ready for harvesting but the peasants had fled for fear, and the corn was uncut.

Cao Cao sent proclamations to all villages and towns:

‘I am sent on the expedition by command of the Emperor to capture a rebel and save the people. I cannot avoid moving in the harvest season; but if anyone trample down the corn, he shall be put to death. Military law is strict without exception, and the people need fear no damage.’

The people were very pleased and lined the road, wishing success to the expedition. When the soldiers passed wheat fields, they dismounted and pushed aside the stalks so that none were trampled down.

One day, when Cao Cao was riding through the fields, a dove suddenly got up, startling the horse so that it swerved into the standing grain, and a large patch was trampled down. Cao Cao at once called the Provost Marshal and bade him decree the sentence for the crime of trampling down corn.

‘How can I deal with your crime?’ asked the Provost Marshal.

‘I made the rule, and I have broken it. Can I otherwise satisfy public opinion?’

Cao Cao laid hold of the sword by his side and made to take his own life. All hastened to prevent him.

Guo Jia said, ‘In ancient days, the days of the Spring and Autumn history, the laws were not applied to those of the most important. You are the supreme leader of a mighty army and must not wound yourself.’

Cao Cao pondered for a long time. At last he said, ‘Since there exists the reason just quoted, I may perhaps escape the death penalty.’

Then with his sword he cut off his hair and threw it on the ground, saying, ‘I cut off the hair as touching the head.’

Then he sent messengers to exhibit the hair throughout the whole army, saying, ‘The Prime Minister, having trodden down some corn, ought to have lost his head by the terms of the order; now here is his hair cut off as an attack on the head.’

This deed was a stimulus to discipline all through the army so that not a person dared be disobedient.

It is only through actions alone that a leader can seek to inspire his followers. Leaders of low morals often practice the proverb ‘Do as I say, not as I do!’ If they do not walk the talk, why then should they be surprised if their followers rebel against their leadership?



Leading by example is something without which leaders fall. Interestingly many generals in the People Liberation Army are anything but traditional. Some of them have grown to be the richest men in their provinces.


Dear Damien,

Thanks for dropping by.

Interesting remark on the current stage of leadership in China now. With the explosive economic growth of China, there are many opportunities to get wealthy.

Let's hope their Generals still put their country first and themselves & their families second.



The leader has to be the role model and do the things he had said to the people below him to enforce the policies.


Dear Marketing Deviant,

Good point!

I think most leaders start out good... However, after years of power, leaders may lose touch of reality and hubris sets in.

If a leader can still have a clear mind at the pinnacle of power, then he can be called a world-class leader. Not many people can achieve such exalted status.



Maybe the leaders should reflect on their own order or ruling whether it is actually reasonable. Like in this case, Cao Cao himself can't even apply his own order on himself. A good leader should always put themselves in others shoes.


Dear Will Chua,

You have a valid point there in these modern times.

However, we must remember it was generally chaotic during the Three Kingdoms era. Without strict laws, things would be worst!

IMHO, Cao Cao acted as reasonably given the circumstances he found himself under.


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