Best businesses embrace The Art of War

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To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

Those words were written by Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago, yet they — like much of this ancient text — are no less relevant today. While “The Art of War” has been considered the definitive text on military strategy and warfare for millennia, it continues to inspire not only generals, but athletes and business leaders as well.

The Art of War is a short, easy read — 13 chapters succinctly and simply presented in 68 pages. Just who Sun Tzu was is debatable. Some say he was a Chinese general and philosopher. Other historians believe Sun Tzu was more likely not one, but multiple creators gathered under one pen name. Either way, it isn’t what he, or they, say about the “enemy” that’s important; it’s the philosophy, the strategic approach to tackling competition and challenging obstacles that has enduring value.

You’ve probably heard some of them before, in modern words. Here are six popular lessons from The Art of War:

1. Only enter battles you know you can win. Knowing when to fight, and when to walk away, means not wasting time, resources, personnel, and money. They say fools enter battles, then develop strategies on how to win. Strategists know how they will win (or succeed in an industry or venture) before they begin. Or they don’t begin at all (is there a different niche which needs filling? Better timing? A different approach?)

2. “Deceive” the competition for desired results. Sun Tzu writes this means masking strengths with weakness (undersell and overdeliver; engender overconfidence in competitors by being humble), courage with timidity (bluster and boasting usually belie the opposite anyway), and order with disorder. Keeping your business plans and problems quiet, or masking them to advantage. In this sense “deception” is making sure your information is better than the competition’s.

3. Lead your team as if leading a single person by the hand. “A skilled general leads his army, as if he was leading a single man by the hand.” Whether your “army” is small or large, breaking them down into smaller groups makes for better steering. This suggests that in business, teams should stay small. Fewer people make cooperation easier and less complicated. It means clear signals, such as specific targets and tools, with regular briefings to keep things on track. With the “single man” approach, one-on-one relationships also engender loyalty. Teams feel like family.

4. Capture your market, without destroying it. “The best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this…To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” A company can achieve this by “attacking” underserved segments of the market with an indirect or low-key approach that won’t draw a competitor’s response. Avoid the price war. Price wars draw more aggressive responses from competitors, and drain profits.

5. Avoid your competitor’s strength, and attack their weakness. “An army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.” Western culture has led traditional business to attack hard and head-on, which can be costly. Instead, this philosophy suggests focusing on a competitor’s weakness to maximize gain and minimize resources. That should be better for the bottom line.

“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” Research, and frank self-assessment, provide the information necessary to identify strengths and weaknesses.

6. Develop your own character to maximize employee potential. “When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.” Maximizing employee potential requires a good leader. Sun Tzu describes the ideal traits: wisdom, sincerity, compassion, courage, and strict consistency. Good leaders share the sweat equity and be “first in the toils and fatigues of the army.”

Digging trenches with the troops, like knowing when to refrain from a fight and when not to boast, is yet another indication of the importance of humility. If knowledge is power, Sun Tzu would say wisdom is not letting it go to our heads.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

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