The stratagem I’m going to present to you is from the book The 36 stratagems, a Chinese masterpiece that can be of interest to anyone involved in conflict situations: in business, politics, and private life.
Wait for the moment of the day, siege the enemy when they are in an unfavourable situation, and lure the enemy with artificial illusions. If it is dangerous to attack them, then try to make the enemy attack us.
The stratagem is based on the concept that a powerful enemy acting in his natural environment is difficult to defeat: to make him weaker and more vulnerable, it will be necessary to push him moving in an environment that is less favourable to him/her.
The tiger is the opponent, the mountain his stronghold: a powerful enemy favoured by a position that is optimal for him is like a tiger to whose strength is added more strength.
The stratagem suggests not to frontally attack a powerful opponent in a familiar environment, but to push him to occupy a terrain that is not congenial to him, preferably an entirely unknown one; once the strength due to position is reduced, then it will be easier to adopt stratagems that make him vulnerable or even inoffensive.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu recommends “avoiding the attack on fortified cities“, because any victory would have high costs; moreover, the Master points to the terrain as a key factor in armed conflict (along with climate, commanders, discipline, and popular support), and recommends “not to face an enemy deployed on a high ground or with a hill at his back.”
Moreover, the powerful and well-located opponent will only attack if he thinks that the attack is convenient; therefore, to prevail, it will be necessary to create the conditions for him to move to us, abandoning the mountain, and then face him in conditions favourable to us.
In essence, the stratagem has the purpose of dislocating the opponent where you wish, prompting a change in the situation.
But who is the opponent? It may be an enemy to defeat or someone we need to defend against or a person we care about and for whom being a tiger on the mountain may be dangerous; we will see some examples below.
We will see below several applications of the stratagem.
“Lure the tiger down the mountain” is among the stratagems employed to achieve victory by planning the attack early, carefully observing the situation, minimizing one’s exposure, causing the opponent to consume his/her energy, and then attacking him/her in the most favourable moment.
Toward the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (first two centuries BC), a non-Chinese tribe from western China called Qiang rebelled and invaded Wudu. After the invasion, a man named Yu Yu was appointed governor of Wudu with the responsibility of settling the revolt and subduing the tribe.
Yu Yu had been marching at the head with his troops when he was attacked by surprise by the Qiang and isolated among the gorges of the Yao Mountains, unable to move further. Instead of attempting to break the siege, Yu Yu ordered the troops to stand on the mountain and pretended to ask for reinforcements from the imperial court, saying that he was going to resume the march only after their arrival.
The Wudu governor made sure that the Qiangs were informed of this; the latter, thinking to gain some advantage before the arrival of imperial reinforcements, divided their troops and took to looting nearby territories.
After verifying that the enemies had divided their forces, Yu Yu and his troops quickly set out, day and night, toward Wudu’s stronghold.
To disorient the Qiang, he ordered that whenever the army stopped to rest, the soldiers would build and light several clay ovens, and increase their number every day. When the Qiang forces who remained nearby saw the number of clay ovens, they thought that reinforcements had arrived and did not dare to attack.
Thus, was it that Yu Yu managed to break through the encirclement, entered the Wudu fortress and, thanks to the overwhelming advantage following the division of forces by Qiang, succeeded in destroying the enemy army.
The false call for reinforcements to the imperial court had lured the tiger down the mountain.
The stratagem is employed in a rather considerable number of situations, in private and professional life, and not always consciously: getting to know it better will help you both apply and cope with it.
What means can be employed to lure the tiger down the mountain?
Let’s look at some of them:
It is important to note that the application of the stratagem is particularly sensitive when the tiger occupies a top management position, and a change of role, appropriate for the future of the organization, may prove risky because of the wide range of implications it may have.
For example, it may be the case of a project team that takes all the chances to negotiate the delivery date of project technical specs, proposing deadlines that are not compatible with the client’s needs; making the situation more complicated comes that the tiger has vast experience and knowledge, and the organization cannot give those up lightly.
In conclusion, it is worth keeping in mind that to induce the tiger to leave the mountain and move toward us, it may prove useful to employ the emotional trigger: irritation, loss of control, and overestimation of one’s strength may cause the person to act when the conditions are not favourable.
A characteristic common to the points that follow is the urge to push the opponent to leave his mountain to join ours because outside his environment his/her resistance is likely to decline.
In this case, the mountain may be the site of the negotiation, because the opponent may employ to his/her advantage factors that can be of decisive importance when the negotiation extends over time: that is, when agenda management, location comfort, management of breaks, and the overall atmosphere become crucial to the outcome.
In addition, during the discussion it may be useful to induce the other party to adopt a cooperative approach, abandoning an attitude aimed purely at self-interest; in this case, a powerful tool is provided by specific questions, phrased in a way that fosters in the opponent the awareness of the consequences of a failure.
For example, questions such as “What alternatives do we have to this agreement?”, or “Have you thought about the consequences we would face if we fail the agreement?”, or even “If you were in my place, would you accept your terms?” are meant to encourage reflection and change the context in which the other party sets the negotiation.
Another way to lure the tiger down the mountain is to explore technical aspects inherent in the negotiating environment, aspects that the counterpart is not prepared to deal with, or has limited knowledge about; in this case, what you can accomplish is to generate at least less confidence in the knowledge of the topic and thus less resistance to holding rigid positions.
Finally, remember that if you find yourself discussing with your boss issues that are crucial to you (e.g., a new assignment, a project you care deeply for, or simply a pay raise), you would better broach the subject in a restaurant rather than in his/her office or in a setting that reminds the difference in the hierarchy.
Stratagem can be useful in shaping an effective sales strategy. It is known that the chance of making a sale or gaining a business order is highest when it is the customer who requests the product/service we offer; then the challenge we face is to persuade the tiger to leave the mountain.
Who is the tiger? And what is the mountain? Well, in this case, the tiger is the customer; powerful because he has the money and the possibility to choose the supplier. The mountain, on the other hand, represents the context in which the transaction takes place; here, the sales professional is focused on the Customer’s money, to which he/she, more or less consciously, attributes more value than the product/service he/she offers. How to flush out the tiger?
The skilful sales professional makes sure to make himself visible to the Client’s eyes and creates the conditions so that the Client shows the intention to buy; moreover, he/she knows how to value his/her product/service and is aware that a profitable sale occurs only when the Client can assess the quality of what he/she is buying.
In my second professional life, that of a business coach, quite often I had to negotiate my compensation; in all cases where I was faced with a Client determined to invest as less as possible, without focusing on the benefits he would get from my services, my reaction sounded more or less like this: “If my work doesn’t have the same dignity as your money, we cannot work together.”
Business depends on contracts, and litigation is always around the corner: partnership agreements, framework contracts, and contracts to purchase goods are just a few examples. Crucial in these cases is the competent court and the applicable law, which the parties are free to choose (except in particular cases, such as contracts concluded with Chinese companies for joint ventures, franchising, technology transfer, and buying/selling real estate, for which the application of Chinese law is mandatory). The choice of the legal framework can be critical, because in the event of litigation the partner may venture into unfamiliar legal terrain.
Another interesting aspect relates to mountain discovery and occupation, which in this case symbolizes the market we are interested in: firms do their best to discover unexplored mountains, create new ones, conquer those occupied by opposing tigers, and abandon less favourable ones. In this case, associating market competition with this stratagem can help focus attention on strategies and define effective business plans.
The application of the stratagem in politics is not so different from that employed in the organizational arena. The Prime Minister may entrust assignments to people that he cannot exclude for power reasons, but he is careful to assign them roles that are unpopular or for which they have limited competencies; therefore, when you see crucial responsibilities entrusted to people with insufficient specific preparation, then we are probably faced with the application of the stratagem, aimed at limiting their range of influence.
In diplomacy, however, the attempt to bring the tiger down the mountain often occurs in the process of preparation for summit meetings: the choice of the territory where a meeting between heads of state or political leaders takes place is a key indicator of the existing balance of power; for example, when then U.S. President Richard Nixon travelled to China in 1972 for a bilateral meeting with Communist Party of China Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the choice of the location left observers to speculate that the balance of power was leaning slightly on China’s side.
In armed conflict it is usual to push the enemy to occupy positions suitable to the weapons and forces available, avoiding confrontation under unfavourable conditions. An interesting example of the application of this strategy is the Chinese Civil War (which lasted in alternating phases from 1927 to 1950), in which the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had Mao Tse-tung as its guide, faced each other. The Nationalists vastly outnumbered and outfitted the Communists, and open-field confrontation would have had no history; it was for this reason that Mao Tse-tung adopted the guerrilla strategy, deploying forces in difficult-to-access mountainous areas they were familiar with.
In 2012 my son Alberto earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the Milan Polytechnic and, at the same time, he was preparing privately to take his eighth-grade piano exam at the Conservatorio. Two days after receiving his degree, Alberto invited the whole family out for a pizza, and during the dinner he informed us that he would not attend the Master’s degree in Architecture; instead, he was going to enrol in the Civic Jazz School of the City of Milan. His future would be neither as an architect nor as a classical pianist but as a jazz pianist; news that had a good chance of not being welcomed by his parents, and therefore he preferred to give it outside the home and in a suitable context (we all in the family love pizza).
When you want to favourably impress a person, make sure that the meeting takes place in a location that you know very well so that you can feel comfortable at any moment, and at the same time be pleasant to your guest. The stratagem, tried out positively by my son, is applicable in the most diverse contexts of everyday life, from courtship to personal relationship management.
Another case where the stratagem may find use concerns a person who, despite having reached an age when he/she could retire, insists on staying at work; this may be the case of entrepreneurs and managers who continue to lead companies even late in life, professionals who act as if time is not running out and, in this way may put their health and family balance at risk.
What should we do when people who are close to us behave in this way? In this case, luring the tiger down the mountain can be quite tricky, because the person involved may see in their daily actions the very reasons for their existence. What I suggest you avoid is wall-to-wall, because simply asking a person to change is very unlikely to produce results; then solutions may consist in encouraging a change in the tiger’s view of himself and of the reality around him and focusing on developing new and more suitable interests. A change that must be the result of an independent choice; easy to say, not at all to do, but a proper application of the stratagem can provide results that are better than expected.
Go to the next paragraph to further investigate.
The alligator lives near rivers, as it has a particular intolerance to salinity; the crocodile, morphologically similar, is dangerous in both fresh and salt water, which it tolerates thanks to glands that filter out the salt; outside water, both retain their dangerousness.
If you catch a white shark (among the most dangerous predators) and leave it on land, you render it harmless; however, the Argentine orca (killer whale), an extraordinary predator, voluntarily beaches herself to catch young sea lions on the shoreline.
The risks in applying the stratagem lie mainly in the careful assessment of the characteristics of the opponent (alligator or crocodile?) and its adaptability to the terrain in which you want to lure it (shark or orca?) and the alliances it might benefit from: in essence, carefully analyze the situation, make sure that in the new territory the tiger is really most vulnerable, wait patiently for creating the conditions so that it leaves its den.
Several ways can be employed to lure out the tiger: a decoy (to draw it into a trap), frighten or provoke it (to make it lose its wits and act without thinking), pretend to attack its territory (to get it to react by abandoning the mountain).
Here are some strategies that may help you oppose the stratagem, and that will increase your resilience in any case.
You may be tempted not to leave the mountain and to stubbornly resist going into territory where you do not feel at home, but this may lead you to miss opportunities.
What to do, then? When you occupy a mountain you feel comfortable in before you abandon it ask yourself a few questions:
If danger signals are prevalent then all-out resistance would be the best solution.
From the previous questions, you will have realized that investing in a few crucial points will enable you to lower your vulnerability to stratagem. Here they are:
Referring to this last point, it is important to pay attention to building a solid reputation, a crucial factor in resisting the opponent’s attempt to break your system of relationships and alliances by employing slander.
The dissemination of negative information, whether true or not, has proven to be quite effective.
How to react to slander? I have written a post on the subject, in which I argue that the best recipe is prevention, adopting behaviours that can inspire in others the esteem that makes it difficult for slander to take root (see cartoon strip).
To conclude, a note regarding the application of the stratagem in the case of negotiation; we have seen that the site can be decisive, because the host can take advantage of factors such as agenda management, the comfort of the place, the management of breaks, and more. In such cases, especially when my position is weaker than my counterpart’s, I usually accept immediately the invitation to go to the opposing location.
Why do I keep a behaviour that, apparently, penalizes me? The purposes I want to achieve are threefold:
Thinking about what we have seen so far it seems evident that both in implementing the stratagem and in coping with it you must prepare yourself thoroughly; to deal with any situation, even the most complex.
But that does not surprise you, does it?