If you ask a dozen successful Chinese entrepreneurs to name the best business book ever, chances are such ten will say, The Art of War. It was written by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago, possibly in the sixth century BC. The book is composed of 13 chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of war. It’s a smart book. It’s also poetic and mysterious.
The book has long been heralded for its advice on military success and this advice has since been co-opted by legions of armchair soldiers and generals in the business world.
Sun Tsu observes, “Winners are those who know the art of direct and indirect strategies. Such is the art of military maneuvers.”
Today, I have boiled it down for the managers and executives in the corporate world, what he called “five circumstances in which victory may be predicted.” This is useful particularly at times of crisis.
He will win, who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
Know your enemy. If you know that your own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, you have gone only halfway towards victory.
When seeking to determine the military conditions, consider the following points: (1) Which of the two generals has the most ability? (2) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (3) Which army is stronger? (4) On which side are the officers and men more highly trained? (5) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. Care about your team, but also be a tough boss. (According to Sun Tsu, when the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse).
Don’t go into battle without knowing what you’re up against. What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men is foreknowledge. Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, or by any deductive calculation. Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.
Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity. They cannot be properly managed without benevolence and straightforwardness. Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports. Be subtle and use your spies for every kind of business.
nHe will win, who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
When you possess core competence – the package of skills and technology that gives you a competitive edge over the others- flaunt it. When you have financial or legal clouts, use it. (In all cases, notice the relevance of Sun Tsu’s observation: “Speed is the essence of the war”). Do not bite off more than what you can chew. Avoid taking on more than what you could handle.
Be decisive and quick. The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike. According to Sun Tsu, “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him. Rapidity is the essence of war: Take advantage of the enemy’s unalertness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots. Exploit your enemy’s weaknesses, avoid his strengths. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. Plan ahead -- don’t make it up as you go. Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”
The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang Mountains. Strike at its head and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle and you will be attacked by head and tail both.
He will win, whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
A strong leader will forge a strong culture and a strong culture unifies an organisation’s members, who will give predictable behaviour. Sun Tsu says, “Nourish your soldiers well and build up their internal skills and this will ensure victory.” Nourishing means investing and training and development of your people and also, adequately compensated. Otherwise, you can forget all about ranks being united, as your worry will be then be how to get people to fill the positions when employees leave for greener pastures.
Carefully study the well-being of your employees and do not overtax them. Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. Keep your army continually on the move and devise unfathomable plans.
He will win, who prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
Prepare you employees by communicating your vision and mission. Be sure that they understand. Invest in information technology and communication tools. You will have the competitive edge when your staff are well informed and know what is happening. Seek out niche markets where you are the first one to operate.
He will win, who has military capacity and is not interfered with the sovereign.
There is an old Chinese saying, “If you suspect a man, don’t use him. After you decide to use him, don’t suspect him.”
According to Sun Tsu, there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune on his army:
By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.
By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.
By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.
The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy and does not require too much from individuals. Hence, he has the ability to pick out the right men and utilize combined energy. When he utilizes combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones. For it is the nature of a log or stone to remain motionless on level ground and to move when on a slope; if four-cornered, to come to a standstill, but if round-shaped to go rolling down.
In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.
Therefore, the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. The good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but may not be very keen of defeating the enemy. Hence, the saying of Sun Tsu: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.
Since much of the text is about how to fight wars without actually having to do battle, throughout the past several decades, The Art of War has been applied to many fields well outside of the military. The book gives tips on how to outsmart one’s opponent so that physical battle is not necessary. As such, it has found application as a training guide for many competitive endeavours that do not involve actual combat.
There are many business books applying its lessons to office politics and corporate strategy. Many Japanese companies make this book required reading for their key executives. The book is also popular among Western business management, who have turned to it for inspiration and advice on how to succeed in competitive business situations. (The writer is a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial
experience. He can be contacted at