The Three Strategies of Huang ShiGong on Business and Leadership (Part 1)

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Home > Articles > The Three Strategies of Huang ShiGong on Business and Leadership (Part 1)

 The Three Strategies of Huang ShiGong on Business and Leadership (Part 1)

Sheh Seow Wah | Today's Manager
June 1, 2019

Huang ShiGong’s Three Strategies was organised into three hierarchies of importance, namely the Lower Strategy, Middle Strategy, and Upper Strategy. The first of two parts touches on the Upper Strategy.

China was in a warring state for several thousand of years. It is no wonder then that there have been many military classics and military strategies that have been written and documented. One of the famous military classics is The Seven Military Classics of ancient China which among others includes The Three Strategies of Huang ShiGong and The Six Secret Teachings of Jiang TaiGong. Huang ShiGong was known to live during the 3rd century BC. His ‘Three Strategies’ was organised into three hierarchies of importance, namely the Lower Strategy, Middle Strategy, and Upper Strategy. These three strategies were written for three different styles of government, where the key success factors of a government will, among others, depend on:

  • he alternate use of hard and soft approaches by the ruler/leader,
  • Acting according to the circumstances by relying on past personal experience and wisdom, thorough observation of the situation, and careful planning. In implementation, being flexible and acting according to the changing situation, and
  • The ability to assess your people and use them in the right manner—employing only the capable.

Upper Strategy (上策)
The Upper Strategy focusses its discussion on employing the capable and using them to gain victory. The following highlights some of the key tenets of the Upper Strategy:

  • In attracting capable people to join the state, proper forms of propriety and generous salaries are essential. The wise ruler knows how to honour capable people with rank and attractive remuneration. When a ruler gains something, he does not keep everything for himself. You must learn to share credit with your people. Rewards and punishments have to be clear. Although they are on opposite sides of the coin, they are inseparable. This strategy is commonly used among large corporations to compete for the best brains to work for them.
  • If a ruler does nothing to use the capable and does not dismiss the incapable, the capable would go into seclusion and not serve the country. On the contrary, the incapable would hold high positions. If an organisation’s leader uses a talented employee like a slave, good people will leave the organisation.
  • In leading, a wise ruler uses both hard and soft approaches. In fact, ultimately, the soft can counter the hard, the weak will counter the strong—the “Dao” philosophy. To be able to win the heart of subordinates, the ruler needs to deeply and truly understand them. Understanding will provide one with the necessary power. By truly understanding your subordinates, you
    will have the knowledge to motivate them and make them loyal. If a ruler can use them appropriately, he is being adaptable to change. By being able to use the hard and soft approaches, the state will become increasingly prosperous. In an
    organisation, the leader needs to know when to be tough and when to be soft. If a leader only knows how to use the soft approach, he/she and the organisation will perish.
  • In understanding his subordinates, a ruler needs to have a discerning eye and sensitive ears. When evil men start to praise each other to cover the ruler’s eyes and block the ruler’s ears, the ruler will become unable to distinguish between good and bad, and thus, the state will eventually be destroyed. In an organisation, a leader needs to investigate all things before taking action. A leader should not overrely on what he/she sees or hears. He/she needs to do their homework to investigate.
  • In respect to good and bad timing, a wise general shares the weal and woes of his men. This is the manner by which he is able to gain the trust and loyalty of his men. The ability of a ruler to treat his people well is critical in retaining and motivating his people. Without a team of motivated people, long-term victory is impossible. In many large Asian corporations, employees are normally not paid as high as their western counterparts. This is because when times are bad, these corporations prefer to retain their employees.

At the end of the day, a capable leader must be able to handle his/her subordinates, his/her opponents (competitors), and the situation well in order to ensure long-term victory and prosperity of the state or organisation. These are the basic key success factors.

“The philosophy is to overcome the strong with the soft.” The Middle Strategy and Lower Strategy will be discussed in Part II.


Dr Sheh Seow Wah is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. He is the author of The Humanistic Way: Lessons from Confucius and Mencius, The Strategic Way: Lessons from the Chinese Strategic Thinkers, Chinese Leadership: Moving from Classical to Contemporary, and Wise Leadership: Timeless Wisdom from the Ancient Chinese.


Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 2, 2019

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