“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Business is the new age battlefield and surprisingly Sun Tzu’s 2500-year-old tactics can still be applied and found successful to this day. Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach, is known to have closely studied Sun Tzu’s teachings to give him insights in preparing for games, and no one can argue with that man’s success. The brilliant and timeless philosophy The Art of War presents is still taught at places like West Point and Harvard Business School today. So, what can we, as CEOs, leaders, and decision-makers learn from this ancient military text?
“When he is taking ease, give him no rest.” The text is riddled with harsh words and phrases which have ruthless and cutthroat connotations in today’s society. And although many view the business world as ruthless, The Art of War teaches us more than simply being unforgiving towards our enemy or competition and crushing them with brute force. Sun Tzu says: “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” We wish to achieve this pinnacle of skill within our own markets, to win with ease, exerting the least amount of effort necessary, with laser-like efficiency and wasting no movements or valuable resources. How does one win with ease? Sun Tzu stresses the importance of understanding our enemies, as well as understanding ourselves before we engage them in battle or enter into the market.
This is where the “Art” comes in. It’s about winning the battle before it is even fought. Out-thinking and out-maneuvering your opponent, understanding your strengths, recognizing your opponent’s weaknesses, and capitalizing on opportunities present in any given market. Sun Tzu says, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Once your company understands its competition as well as it understands itself, remaining one step ahead of them will become instinctive. Ultimately, who survives in the end? The ones best able to adapt to changing circumstances and modifying one’s plans accordingly.
With today’s rapidly evolving technology influenced age, this must be a constant battle waged in one’s own mind, or as Sun Tzu would put it “a general’s temple.” “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.” So, leave nothing up to chance, calculate for every variable you can think of, measure, examine, and contemplate, this will reveal opponents’ vulnerabilities, and uncover the present opportunities in your market; all while discovering your own personal blind spots within your organization. The same amount of calculations as your competitors equals the same strategy; therefore, you must strive to exceed your competitor, make your strategy a point of differentiation within your market. The battle is won before it is even fought.
“Attack where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” Technology is growing at an exponential rate and a new app tomorrow could completely change the market landscape. You and your company must be unpredictable to remain competitive. If you are using the same tactics or selling strategies you were using 10 years ago, you may have already been left behind. Constantly search for new avenues to reinvent yourself, while still remaining true to your original vision. Devise new ways to sell and brand yourself. “Attack where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
One final insight to take to heart: A business is ultimately only as good as the people working within it, and an army is no different. Sun Tzu recognized this and urged his readers to: “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” Deep valleys will undoubtedly appear, regardless of your company’s current standing within the market. However, if you are prepared, well calculated, unpredictable, understand your competition as well as you understand yourself, and possess the unbridled trust of your company’s troops/employees; you need not fear the outcome of one hundred battles or the deepest of valleys. Your company’s success will be a guarantee before the battle is waged. Yet, you must always remain wary and ready to adapt to the inevitably changing circumstances in today’s competitive landscape.
Kelly D. Scott
The world’s leading business advisory and executive coaching organization