Sun Tzu - the art of war

How not knowing the ‘Art of War’ in business makes you a rookie

Sun Tzu – “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”


There are plenty of articles, descriptions and analysis floating around the internet today about “Sun Tzu-The Art of War“. This ancient technique which transcends thousands of years is still readily available and relevant these days – and is still widely used in military fields and in business tactics. From my readings and decrypting its versions, I choose to present some strategies adapted to our daily life written in “Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War written by Robert L Cantrell”.


Because success is a choice, every person who is interested in being life-successful should know Sun Tzu’s rules. When you choose to compete in business or in life, you offer other alternatives as a comparison. Those around you can choose to support or oppose you yet in the end, success in competition is determined by the choices people make. Making good choices means knowing how to compare alternative options. A comparison must take place whenever a choice is made. Success depends on knowing how to make good comparisons yourself and how to use the choices others make that directly affect you.


In the complex chaotic world today we can easily become trapped into making destructive rather than productive decisions. Even our smallest decisions can have a huge impact on our future positions yet most of us make these decisions without taking into account an overall perspective based on comparison.


The problem is that we are historically trained for the world of yesterday – the world of being told what to do – and we fail to use our inbuilt ability to make decisions that will benefit us. We are trained in the linear thinking of planning and not the adaptive world of strategy. This linear thinking applies less and less in the networked and competitive world of business today.


Sun Tzu – The Art of War is a system of success that has survived for 2500 years – because it works! The book itself was banned for 2,000 years. The text was scattered and fragmented. Most translations were pretty bad for good historical reasons. If you want to know where these competitive ideas survived, we offer a wide range of articles on the history of Sun Tzu and his work, The Art of War.


Competition is a comparison of positions where a choice must be made. Conflict is the result of poor choices – or no choice at all. Sun Tzu teaches us how to build up the strength of our position. Conflict always weakens our position. Sun Tzu’s strategy is to identify the key points of comparison in a competitive situation. This understanding allows us to make the right decisions.


Observations of SUN TZU’s principles outside the military


Sun Tzu did not invent the principles recorded in Sun Tzu on the Art of War. He observed them – used them in accord with Chinese history – and then presented them in a way that made sense to his followers.


Start with his first principle, winning whole, and, as an illustration, suppose Sun Tzu practiced his art in business instead of war.

on winning whole

Sun Tzu: on winning whole

On Winning Whole

If Sun Tzu had practiced his art in business, he might have approached the idea of winning whole like this:


“In the practice of the art of business, the best way to earn a market is to earn it with your profitability intact. To earn a market while destroying in profitability is inferior to this way. Hence, to win every contested sale through skillful negotiation is not the foremost excellence. To sell to a buyer without a competitive contest is the foremost excellence.


These statements above mean sell what, how, or where a competitor does not sell in order to command high profits. Limit a buyer’s decision to include only whether to buy you a product and preclude any need for that buyer to decide from whom to buy your product. Do not compete on price alone. So, for example, if you sell something buyers want that only you can offer, you have more power to earn a higher profit than otherwise. Consider the profits the Microsoft has generated with its exclusive control of Windows software as an illustration. If you also establish a strong relationship with a buyer and charge a fair price, that buyer might never invite a competitor to challenge you. With a strong enough relationship in place, a buyer may hesitate to offend you with such an invitation to a competitor.

Sun Tzu: On leading to advantage

Sun Tzu: on leading to advantage

On leading to advantage

Stack the deck in your favor” since by stacking the deck in your favor you do and can lead others to further advantage. This principle in part translates to “stack the deck in your favor” since by stacking the deck in your favor you do and can lead others for future advantages. In business, unique knowledge, a patent, a contract, and a number of other devices that create barriers to competition provide advantages that can stack the deck in favor of attaining high profitability. In law, irrefutable evidence against one party might force a settlement in favor of the other. Having a sound and healthy body stacks the deck in favor of those recovering from physical injury. Superior conditions allows athletes to push for a present win without jeopardizing their chances to win in the next game after. In life, those who have more to trade for money than just their time – perhaps a unique and valuable talent – better their chances of both achieving success and having a rewarding personal life, depending upon how they use their advantage.


Sun Tzu said:

“Avail yourself to good fortune and create situations that will lead to success and sustainable advantages. When such favorable circumstances arise, modify your plans accordingly to take advantage of them.”

Stack the deck in your favor whenever you have the opportunity to do so. When an opportunity or threat presents itself, call upon those advantages to win, and to win whole. Those who succeed by using overwhelming advantages can always show restraint after their victory.

Sun Tzu: on deception

Sun Tzu: on deception

On deception

The ability to deceive if necessary, and also to detect the same, is a major advantage for those seeking to win the whole. Tough the word has negative connotations, it only partly deserves that reputation. Many bright people, for example, want to believe that a special car or fine clothes make them somehow better persons. The seller of those products can encourage their buyers’ self-deceptions to stack the deck in their own favor during sales negotiations and earn high profits – win whole. Such self-deceptions do not necessarily harm anyone, and for those who like fine things, the right car and clothes can genuinely enhance the quality of life.


The profession of law as we know it is grounded upon the interplay between deception and truth. If people told the whole truth and nothing but the truth without bending even a little, the courts would only concern themselves with the validity of proposed or taken actions. Since deception is part of human nature, the courts must shift through truths, deceptions, and appearances from differing points of view to find the most probable truth as a whole. When deliberately abused, deceptions lead to the frivolous lawsuits by which a few attorneys have tarnished the whole industry.


Doctors leverage deception positively when they use harmless vaccines to deceive the body into building immunity against a real disease. They often also prescribe drugs that fool the harmful mechanism of disease into acting harmlessly. In sports, athletes depend on deception to cause their opponents to make mistakes and so open the way to score points. In personal life and love, Sun Tzu could arguably have said:


“The art of courtship is based on deception.”


Perhaps mystery, not distance, makes the heart grow fonder. But most people in relationships or otherwise, do not “bare” well when completely exposed. Hence people often feel the need to reveal and conceal themselves selectively to stack the deck in their favor and obtain their whole desires.

Sun Tzu: on energy

Sun Tzu: on energy

On energy

Sun Tzu’s fourth principle on energy practically translates to “action.” When an opportunity presents something of value to win whole, you have stacked the deck in your favor to win it whole, and, through subtle or not so subtle deceptions, you have further reduced the power of your opposition to oppose you, you must act on the opportunity to actually succeed.


The principle of energy connects Sun Tzu’s other principles and, like all of Sun Tzu’s principles, mirrors Sun Tzu’s observations about the ways of life. Energy is life, and sustaining life involves taking action from a position of advantage under conditions whereby even when not successful at an endeavor, life itself at least stays whole. Sun Tzu could have said:

“Therefore, to make yourself secure from defeat while also positioning for advantage, behave like a tiger, hidden but alert under the cover of brush, safe from stampeding herds but ever repositioning, ever ready to chase down an opportunity in an open and public flash.”


Critical moments come and go, and only the most astute and able practitioners of an art capitalize on them where others must stumble. Consider, as a case in point, the actions of one highly successful basketball coach. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has coached far more last second wins than he has loses with the Duke University Blue Devils basketball team. Coach Krzyzewski appears to have an exceptional ability to read the positioning and the psychology of opposing players and can use that to direct the actions of his own players to where they produce a win.


Regarding energy in business, the best salespeople sense the moment when a prospect is ready to sign, and then act to secure the order. In law, the best lawyers position the opposition, judge and jury with the evidence, and in the critical moment, make their case on an irrefutable idea, not too early, not too late, so the idea has the momentum to carry the victory. The skillful surgeon cuts out the disease yet leaves behind tissue in good health for continued life. The sports team capital calls a play on a quick count to keep up the momentum of a drive down the field. A chance meeting in an elevator leads to a great new job because you already know what you want and can act on the opportunity presented to you. All of these illustrations are principles of energy and a key to taking effective action.

Sun Tzu: on strength and weaknesses

Sun Tzu: on strength and weaknesses

On strengths and weaknesses

All opportunity has opposition, even when that opposition resides within us. Tough facing opposition head on can be a learning experience in practice, when it really matters, energy best focused acts where opposition is weak and not where opposition is strong. At the end of the day in business, true business leaders measure their success on their ability to provide wealth and livelihoods to those associated with their enterprises.  Businesses succeed most reliably when they follow a lucrative path of low resistance to that success. They sell benefits that buyers want to buy in ways competitors cannot easily match. They sell hard while the opportunity to sell exists and always sell in accord with their advantages.


In business, however, acting in accord with strengths and weaknesses requires an added subtlety over the military. Opposition comes from many angles and rarely denotes a contest between just two sides, as in war. Multiple competitors create multiple types of opposition simultaneously. A business leader’s primary objective, therefore, involving earnings customer business and rarely involves deliberate destruction of competitors as in war. Competitor destruction usually occurs as a byproduct of that business leader’s own success in the marketplace. In business Sun Tzu might therefore have described a boarder positioning model to ensure a business leader identifies a place within a market to succeed. Maybe Sun Tzu would have included the following about differentiation:

“In accord with your strength and weaknesses, do the familiar differently or make the different familiar. If you do the familiar the same way, buyers will not recognize you. If you do the different in a different way, buyers will not understand you.”


This statement means that in business you should seek to sell all a recognizable benefit yet also differentiate your offering from that of competitors. By doing so, you become the preferred choice of a market segment, and as a preferred choice, you can better command profitability within the segment. When you can command profitability within a market segment, you can from a business standpoint, win whole. Note that the reintroduction of Volskwagen’s Beetle in 1998, as a profitable product both different and familiar to buyers at the same time.


Outside business, where contests do occur between just two sides more frequently, Sun Tzu’s principle on strengths and weaknesses as Sun Tzu originally described it, holds clearer. Lawyers seek juries least likely to reject their arguments, or when on contingency, seek cases effectively already won so their opponents will settle quickly. Though lawyers can profit handsomely by doing so, actually going to trail rarely describes a path of low resistance.


Doctors, likewise, seek less invasive ways to cure disease, and a sports team strong in the center and weak on the outside can expect opponents to attack their weak outside. All of Sun Tzu’s principles tie together. If the above sports team can deceive its opponent into believing that it actually has strength on the outside and weaknesses in the center, its opponent may follow a path of most resistance by attacking that strong center.


In life, acting on what is and not on what you would like to be is a great first step toward finding a path of low resistance. Not everyone can sing, write, sell, or handle numbers; and talented writer who becomes an average accountant will prove just as frustrated as a talented accountant who becomes an average writer. Following a path of low resistance requires knowledge of yourself an others which is a key to ensuring others do not deceive you and that you do not deceive yourself.


Effectively following a path of low resistance in accord with Sun Tzu on the Art of War also demands that you maintain the integrity and the spirit of the goal you pursue. It involves finding the best way to achieve the intended goal in its entirely behalf of yourself and those you serve. Thus Sun Tzu said:

“Now the general is the pillar of State: if the pillar has mastered all points of war, the State will be strong; if the pillar is defective, the State will be weak.”


So you could expect that those who would compromise on integrity and the spirit of a goal would also themselves prove weak, and those who can achieve a goal in its entirety prove strong.

Sun Tzu: on initiative

Sun Tzu: on initiative

On initiative

Taking the initiative, Sun Tzu’s sixth principle, serves as a great way to use your knowledge of self and others effectively and proves a key way to avoid deceptions that would lead you off your best path. Opposition that must react to you cannot effectively deceive you. It must choose a path you decide for it, react from a position of weakness if you have acted well, react at a disadvantage if you have acted wisely, and will retain only the value of a goal you allow for it. Even where you do not ultimately choose your best path – we are all human and make mistakes – your control of the action might at least create a better journey than that experienced by your opposition.


On initiative in business, Sun Tzu might have said:

“He who earns a market forces his competitors into exhaustion if they hasten to follow his success. So effectively he has made his position that competitors expend their resources attempting to catch up instead of creating new threats to his business.”


This means that if you choose an action and competitors must follow you. Even if you did not choose the best action, you still hold an advantage.


Take initiative into law, and you find its importance in winning lawsuits. Those with the initiative can present evidence in a way it serves best; those without initiative will have difficulty winning even when they should. Sun Tzu, as a trial attorney, might have said:

“Whoever is first on a point of competition and awaits the response of his opponent will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second on a point of contention and has hasted to respond is exhausted.

Therefore, the clever attorney imposes his will on the opposition and does not allow the opposition to impose its will on him.”


This means a lawyer prepare himself, the jury, the opposition, and the judge to receive the highest intended impact of any evidence he brings into the courtroom. His success in turn is a measure of:


  1. The whole impact intended from the evidence

  2. The specific advantage the evidence brings

  3. Managing what else is revealed and concealed before the critical moment

  4. Acting at the critical moment

  5. Acting where the opposition, the jury, and the judge’s ability to preclude the evidence is weakest


Those who fight disease must also take the initiative against disease to prevent it from spreading or developing resistance to treatments. Researchers must stay one step ahead of infectious disease by inventing new treatments before old treatments become ineffective, and doctors must facilitate their patient’s proper use of the drugs they prescribe in order to prevent the evolution of resistant strains.


Sports team likewise need the initiative to create more scoring opportunities and to prevent an opponent from scoring in turn. Those who control the ball tend to put more points on the score board.


Our own way day also goes better when we, and not others, have control of our schedule. This may mean imposing our schedule on others before they impose it on us.

Bottom line: taking the initiative affords the best opportunity to act on our desire and meet our challenges well – and as a side benefit – others the best way to compensate for our mistakes.

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