When the Han Empire collapsed at the end of the 2nd century, general Ts’ao Ts’ao emerged as the most powerful man in China. In order for Ts’ao Ts’ao to gain power and erase any remaining rivals, he launched a campaign to take control of the strategically vital Central Plain, known as Zhongyuan today and considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.
But the general made a mistake. The battle for the Central Plain was so time consuming that he forgot to order a shipment of grain in time. The delay meant less food for his army. Ts’ao Ts’ao’s spies reported that soldiers were grumbling about how their great general was living comfortably while they barely had enough to eat.
Before the grumbles turned into a mutiny, Ts’ao Ts’ao took swift action.
He summoned a high-ranking chief to his tent and said, “I want to ask you to lend me something, and you must not refuse.”
“What is it?” the Chief asked.
“I want the loan of your head to show the troops.” Replied Ts’ao Ts’ao.
“But I’ve done nothing wrong!” cried the Chief.
“I know.” Said Ts’ao Ts’ao with a sigh. “But if I do not put you to death, there will be a mutiny. Do not grieve – after you’re gone, I’ll look after your family.
The Chief was promptly beheaded. General Ts’ao Ts’ao blamed the Chief for hogging all the food. When soldiers saw the head on public display, they stopped grumbling because the person who had forced them to starve had been punished. Or so they thought. Some saw through the deception, but kept quiet because they were afraid of their violent leader.
Source: 48 Laws of Power