Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Snapshot of a “Classic” Source for Valuable Business Lessons

Art of WarOpinions vary as to what defines a “classic” business book. My own opinion is that it offers insights and counsel that are of timeless value. To paraphrase Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century monk, their authors provide the shoulders upon which each new generation of leaders stand.

Some of the best sources are not (technically) business sources. For example: Sun Tzu’s Art of War, dating to 5th century BC but not translated into a European (i.e. French) language until 1772 by French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot and a partial translation into English was attempted by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905. The first annotated English language translation was completed and published by Lionel Giles in 1910. Today, Art of War is probably the most popular non-business source for valuable business lessons. There are dozens. Here are what I consider to be three of the best insights to keep in mind in any competitive marketplace:

1. Every battle is won or lost before it is fought. Over-prepare for contingencies, for unexpected developments.

2. Attack (compete) with concentrated force where your opponent is weakest; entice your opponent to attack where you seem weakest…but are in fact strongest.

3. All warfare (competition) is based on deception. As indicated, if you are weak, seem strong; if strong, seem weak. Also, when near seem far and vice versa. When exhausted seem fresh and vice versa. You get the idea.

Attrition is usually a lengthy and always an expensive process. Sun Tzu viewed engagement on a battlefield as especially a siege as the very last resort. Today, business leaders do all they can to avoid direct confrontations with competitors, preferring negotiation or perhaps even collaboration. If possible, they pursue what W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne have characterized as a “blue ocean strategy.” Sun Tzu would approve.

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