"Winning battles such that the whole world cries, 'Excellent!' is not the highest excellence." Sun Tzu
The reason why I like the quote so much is because it reminds me of the harsh reality of everyday life. Universal praise is seen as good but is it really? Would the sun need to validate itself that it is bright? Does the moon need feedback from others to know it is round? What is true would be so apparent and obvious, it would almost be embarrassing to point it out. Like body odor, nobody needs to say anything to prove it is there.
Thus praise is often a sign of flattery, usually to gain favor. But in Sun Tzu's case, it is worse than harmless brown nosing. It can actually be dangerous. If a military general wants praise, he or she would wait for conflicts to ensue so the general can "save the day." After many lives lost and treasure spent, the best case scenario would be a war won. Yet what exactly was won?
In contrast, if a general doesn't care for praise but only results, he or she would try to prevent battles from starting in the first place. In such a scenario, there would indeed be no praise from others, nothing that people can point to that would confirm how skilled that general really was. You can't compliment something that never happened.
"The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure." Sun Tzu
Why stop at the leadership level? Expand such a trait to everyone else, and you can see the power such an idea can make, and the seemingly limitless progress a community, company, and country can make:
“The best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects;
The next best are loved and praised;
The next are feared;
The next despised:
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful to them.
Therefore, the ruler is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
What we won't easily discover are the countless generals who didn't have to fight wars because those wars were proactively averted. There was no war, but there was no glory. There were no lives lost, but there was no praise. Yet is there any other worldly matter more glorious and praiseworthy than preventing a war, i.e., "winning without fighting"?
So similarly to how we venerate the Unknown Soldier who died for our safety, we too can recognize the Unknown Leader who made sure that his or her soldiers came home safely to their spouses and children. That is truly the highest excellence of all.