top of page

How to Apply the Lessons from "The Art of War" to Your Business Strategy

Once upon a time, 500 years BC, China suffered from endless tribal wars. A successful general emerged from this melee. He was called Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu wrote a book on military strategy and over the years it has been translated and published as The Art of War. Many other Chinese military tacticians built on this knowledge.

I was reminded of this the other day when I picked off my shelves a book by Zhuge Liang and Liu Ji called Mastering The Art Of War. It has been helpfully translated by Thomas Cleary. It isn’t the sort of book that wins a prize for bedtime reading and, as a result, had gathered much dust. My fascination with business frameworks sparked an interest and I began reading.

Military men love analysing victories and defeats. There is much to learn from these and the remarkable thing about Sun Tzu and his followers is that little has changed over 2500 years.

Inevitably much of the book is given to lessons of war. There are many examples of how to win battles including the importance of surprise, deception, splitting the opposition and so on. All of them would be very relevant to business nowadays. However, there are two principles that seem to me absolutely vital in contemporary business strategies.

  1. In number one position is to know yourself and to know who you are up against. We need to know our strengths and weaknesses; we need to know what we do and why we do it. Think frameworks for SWOT, customer value propositions (CVPs), unique selling points (USPs) and McKinsey 7s. We also need to know who we are up against. Think Porter (his four corners) and competitive intelligence. We also need to understand who is the customer, what do they want, how can we win their business and their loyalty? Business intelligence is absolutely vital to success. According to The Art of War, if you understand these things and make these calculations you will never fail to win.

  2. Number two in importance is to never get involved in a fight if you can help it. Wars are expensive and are a last resort to defend a just cause. As the Chinese generals say, "To win without fighting is best." These are wise words. Rather than waste men, money and resources fighting, far better to develop skills in diplomatic relations and to form alliances with people who can help you. It is apparently still part of the Chinese philosophy; at least it appears so from a quote from President Xi Jinping with regard to the recent trade talks with President Trump. He said “China and the US are inseparable, they both do well or they both get hurt. Cooperation is the best choice.” This is the subject of the Value Net Framework discussed elsewhere on this website.

The biggest learning points for me were not the lessons of war but the lessons of leadership. The generals of the past are our business leaders of today. Here is a list of the qualities that were considered essential for a Chinese general.

  1. They must be just and honorable. They must have a great sense of what is right and wrong as there will be difficult decisions to take.

  2. They must have ideas and yet be open to arguments and discussion. They must be flexible and prepared to change their views in the light of better ways of thinking.

  3. They must be good at strategy and capable of using them to exploit opportunities.

  4. Generals must be brave and capable of confrontation in dealing with the inevitable crises.

  5. They must put the needs of their people before themselves. As the book says, “good generals do not say that they are thirsty before their soldiers have drunk from the well, good generals do as everyone does”.

  6. Above all else generals must be seen as trustworthy and this is something that is earned over time.

Looking over these qualities we can see that the greatest commanders care about people. They believe in justice not only within their own people but amongst neighbouring nations. They understand what is going on physically and emotionally in the world. This surely is a great summary for the expectations we have of our business leaders today. Today's business leaders have not done a brilliant job on point #6. People have lost trust in corporations to look after their interests. Leaders seem too preoccupied with short term decisions or with their own remuneration. Restoring trust has become one of the most important issues of our age.

bottom of page