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5 Business Tips from 500 BC


You may be wondering how an ancient Chinese military philosopher is relevant to modern business. Well, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Sun Tzu, who authored The Art of War around 500 BC, still has a profound impact, not only on modern military leaders, but on today’s strategic business thinking.

Rick Wartzman, the executive director of The Drucker Institute, was quoted recently in Forbes Magazine as saying that if you ask “businesspeople to peg the writer whose thinking is most clearly reflected in corporate circles, the odds are that you’ll hear the name Sun Tzu.” also includes The Art of Waron its list of recommended reading because it still contains valuable lessons for those seeking to compete in the Machiavellian, 21st Century business environment.

Here are five of Sun Tzu’s key teachings, what they mean in a modern commercial context, and how they can be applied to your business.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.- Sun Tzu

Gain strategic control of the industry by outmanoeuvring your competitors

The skilful use of strategic affiliations and partnerships can limit your competitors’ freedom of action. Do not get drawn into petty conflicts that benefit no one, and only engage in confrontations that you know you can win. Also, by controlling strategic areas of your industry, such as by forming preferential relationships with key suppliers, your competitors will be forced to react to you, and not vice versa.

“Know the enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”- Sun Tzu 

An understanding of rival firms maximises your own competitive advantages

Identifying and exploiting your competitor’s weakness requires a deep understanding of their strategy and capabilities, as well as an appreciation of your own strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, in order to keep your competitor from utilising this strategy against you, it’s critical to keep your own plans secret.

“An army may be likened to water, just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands.”- Sun Tzu    

Avoid your competitor’s areas of strength, and attack their weakness

Many companies launch head-on, direct attacks against their competitors. This approach to business leads to protracted wars of attrition, which can be disastrous for all parties. Instead, you should concentrate on the competition’s areas of weakness, which maximises your gains while minimising the use of resources. By definition, this is bound to increase your profits.

“Generally in war, the best policy is to take a state intact.”  - Sun Tzu

Capture your market without destroying it

The goal of your business is to capture the target market. But since the market is essential for your own survival and prosperity, this must be achieved in a manner that does not destroy it in the process. This may involve identifying sectors of the market where demand is high and supply is low, or by using a subtle approach that will not draw a response from your competitors. What should be avoided at all costs is a price-war, which will provoke a swift and aggressive response from competitors, leaving the market drained of profits.

“When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.”- Sun Tzu

Effective leadership can maximise the potential of your employees

It takes a special kind of leader to implement the strategic concepts proposed by Sun Tzu. An effective business leader should be wise, courageous, and fair when administering discipline. Leaders must also sacrifice their own personal needs for those of their troops. Successfully implementing Sun Tzu’s philosophy in the modern business arena is not easy, but if you possess the leadership traits necessary for doing so, then it’s likely that success will be forthcoming.