The Art of War by Sun-tzu; translated by Ralph D. Sawyer (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994. 375 pp)

Sun-tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher who lived in the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China, traditionally believed to have lived from 544 BC to 496 BC.

It’s Not All About Warfare

Even though I must admit I was the typical teenager playing the standard first-person shooter games, the older I get, the less inspired I become with the war metaphor. While Tom Clancy can scratch that puerile itch for action and black-and-white narratives, the world’s complexity makes it difficult to sit within the us-versus-them mindset.

From a business perspective, the warfare metaphor runs deep. We all operate in a marketplace full of competition, and any strategic differentiators are needed to come out ahead.

Given this mindset, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War became quite popular in the business world.

War and Business

A collection of pithy remarks on warfare strategy, The Art of War is pretty straightforward. Yet, when taken within the context of business, the book can become a proof text for almost any approach to cutthroat competition.

Generally, The Art of War provides strategic approaches to warfare. Where an army might have deficiencies in numbers or positioning, Sun-tzu’s proverbs provide advice for any general (or CEO) to weigh options and tilt the scales back in favor of the protagonist.

“The one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys others people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation.’ Thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved. This is the strategy for planning offensives” (177).

Historically, the value of The Art of War emerges in the way Sun-tzu seeks to avoid conflict at all costs until strategically favorable positions occur.

Consider this passage as well:

“Now the army’s disposition of force (hsing) is like water. Water’s configuration (hsing) avoids heights and races downward. The army’s disposition of force (hsing) avoids the substantial and strikes the vacuous. Water configures (hsing) its flow in accord with the terrain; the army controls its victory in accord with the enemy. Thus the army does not maintain any constant strategic configuration of power (shih), water has no constant shape (hsing). One who is able to change and transform in accord with the enemy and wrest victory is termed spiritual. Thus [none of] the five phases constantly dominates; the four seasons do not have constant positions; the sun shines for longer and shorter periods; and the moon wanes and waxes” (193).

Like warfare, the capitalist sees business as a zero-sum game between friend and foe. The business enters the marketplace with competition seeking to consume the largest amount of the pie. The successful leader, then, uses strategy as a means to position the business favorably, devastating the competition and creating monopolies.

But, this approach to competition ought not be the only approach.

In fact, partnership with competition often creates the best value for the consumer, and all companies involved.

For example, this winter, I encountered a weather delay and a missed flight on a discount airline. Thousands of dollars later, a corresponding weather delay on the return flight caused no issues when Delta booked flights through American and Alaska Airlines to get my cadre home. In this instance, the partnership between airlines created a positive experience. Even if Delta lost some money on one flight, the positive experience with partnership and flexibility means I will be a return customer.

So, I reject the business-as-warfare strategic approach. Sun-tzu’s The Art of War offers an interesting look at a strategic perspective to warfare. It shouldn’t, however, gird your business practices.

Verdict: 3 out of 5



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