Hsiang Yu and The Lesson of Crushing Your Rivals Completely

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), typically looking somber and preoccupied

In 208 BCE, Hsiang Yu was a general of the Kingdom of Ch'u. He was given orders to invade the neighboring kingdom of Ch'in. Another general, Liu Pang, was given command of another army. These two generals had been friends, but this contest pitted them against each other. Over time they became bitter enemies. Hsiang Yu had succeeded several times in cornering Liu Pang, but each time took pity on his rival and let him escape or pardoned him, even though his advisors told him to not be so merciful.

Of course, once Liu Pang finally succeeded in gaining the upper hand, he executed Hsiang Yu. We all know the lesson here: crush your enemies completely, a lesson repeated by Sun Tzu, Caesar, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Patton and many other strategists. Liu Pang eventually crushed all his rivals, crowned himself emperor, and founded the powerful Han Dynasty. But there is another lesson here that is even more important, not just for generals on the battlefield but for any student of history.

What Liu Pang and all these other generals have in common is an appreciation for the lessons of the past. His rival Hsiang Yu, an aristocrat, but also a brash and absolute leader and not a learned man, did not listen to his advisors, those who’s job it was to share their knowledge of the past. To be a great leader is to learn from the mistakes of others so that you don’t have to make them yourself. It is a lot less painful that way.

As leaders become more successful and become responsible for larger teams & resources, the more important skill is to pay attention to what came before. Learn from the past, and learn from the lessons of others. In 208 BCE China, failure meant being boiled alive or some other gruesome execution. Thankfully today’s workplace is a little kinder but failing on a large project or as a leader, can still feel like a slow boil than ends in bad-tasting soup.

This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.
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