Applying Lessons From Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to Your Business

One doesn’t need to be a literary expert to understand one thing — if a literary work survives for millennia, there is value in it that is intrinsic and timeless. There are messages within that have found application to the lives of people across centuries and continents. Thus, such works must not be ignored by anyone seeking to educate themselves.

The Art of War isn’t merely a collection of battle tactics. It is a book about psychology, leadership, ethics, and strategy that is written in a concise, strict, and soldierly style. It is also a book from which you can learn general principles that can be applied to your own modern life. I have attempted to extrapolate some principles below that can help you succeed as a modern-day entrepreneur, freelancer, or office worker.

On true value…

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!”

In this day of validation by social network, it is easier than ever to mistake public appreciation for personal excellence. It is more tempting than ever to rest on the laurels of likes and retweets and comments and subscribers.

It takes discipline to remember one’s goals and one’s limitations in the face of instant social gratification; it takes wisdom to forge one’s standards of excellence and abide by them in an atmosphere of herd morality.

On planning…

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

Many people, especially software developers, make the mistake of rushing headlong into a business idea because it sounds really cool in their head. The exhilaration of creating something new and creative can be overwhelming. Being tenacious and determined makes one very good at building a product. But, to succeed in business requires different qualities.

It requires, before all else, an ability to step back and look at the bigger picture: the market, the product-market fit, potential cofounders, potential customers, and the complex interplay of all the above that creates a climate susceptible to our idea. Otherwise, we are not a general — we are merely a swordsman hacking away at anything that comes in his path.

All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Everybody can see that your services are worth the money you charge. Everybody can see your company is well organized. Nobody can see the discipline, the determination, the veritable stoicism that went into building your skills over the years. Nobody can appreciate the effort invested in putting together a team and leading it.

On leadership…

We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country — its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps.

Before you take on a leadership position, venture to know the market, the competition, and define a clear path. Only then can you be an effective leader.

If those who are sent to draw water begin by drinking themselves, the army is suffering from thirst.

If your team members are more focused on earning an extra hour or two of overtime than they are on reaching the team’s goals, they are not content. If they do personal projects on company time, they are not focused. You should regard this as your failure, not theirs.

If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.

Lead, but don’t micromanage. Talk to your people before making a decision, but once it’s made, expect everyone to contribute as best they can. It will further your plans and give your men the confidence to challenge themselves.

On preparedness…

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.

Resist the temptation of over-leveraging your position. Make sure you’re a financial fortress before you foray into the wild. Always have something to fall back on. Diversify.

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst — so the saying goes. Whether you hope for the best is up to you, really, but prepare for the worst you must. Be prepared to take a hit or two, whether financial, professional, or personal.

Strengthen your mind, body, and financial situation whenever you can, because things won’t always go your way. Pretending that they will leads, unavoidably, to disaster.

On integrity…

There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.

Don’t let a string of victories fool you — there is always that one challenge that’s too dangerous, that one project that will eat too many resources, and that one client who will expect perfection where perfection is not attainable.

Last but not least, there is occasionally a time when you must say “no” to your boss firmly because their idea is objectively horrible. If they are good at their job, they will hear you out and understand your position. If they are not, then you should reconsider working for them.

On competition…

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. 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.

Why destroy something that you can integrate into your organization, or collaborate with for the greater good? Victory is sweet, but often taking a step back leads to a better outcome in the long-term.

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

Desperate people do desperate things. So do desperate companies and desperate clients. In every negotiation, leave the other side a way out that doesn’t lead to a destructive confrontation.

On confrontation…

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

If a confrontation is unavoidable, be the best at it you can be. Analyze the opponent and take advantage of their weaknesses. When dealing with aggressive people, it is often a good idea to let them self-destruct without going into the head-to-head battle they want. More generally, never play the game that your opponent chooses. This is as true in business as it is in sport.

On collaboration…

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.

Never accept an offer until you understand the motivation of the person making the offer. Never start a team with someone you wouldn’t trust with your house keys.

On attitude…

The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

Make the most of every situation. The recent coronavirus isolation is an excellent illustration of this principle. Some people came out of isolation fitter, smarter, and with a dozen new business ideas. They used their extra time at home to read, work out, think, and promote their work. Others tweeted for 2 months that they were getting fat and lazy. After 2 months, they came out of isolation fat and lazy. What else could they possibly have expected? In every crisis lies opportunity.


Lessons that survive generations and travel continents are the best lessons. Words of advice that don’t muddy the waters are the best words of advice. The Art of War is a rarity in that it belongs to both categories.

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