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Review – The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Introduction: Is The Art of War still relevant today?

The Art Of WarThe Art Of War

Whenever I read classics such as The Art of War, The Way of the Samurai and The Book of Five Rings, I always look for metaphors to make the text relevant for today. I often use competition as a metaphor for war.

Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, Military general, and strategist from 722–481 BC wrote The Art of War, which is one of the earliest books on military strategy. Many military leaders and strategists from all over the world have studied the contents of The Art of War. In a nutshell, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is about two things:

  1. How to prepare your defense to prevent attack.
  2. How to defeat your enemy.

I asked the question “Is The Art of War still relevant today?” And I think it still has some relevance today. I have read The Art of War twice, and the second time I got far more from it than I did the first time. Whenever I read for information or the further my knowledge, I try to place the book’s text in my world, to determine what ideas I can extract and apply. There are lots of nuggets that I can apply to leadership and business. But, there is also lots of information in The Art of War that I would discard today. And that’s okay for you to do that, because it shows that you have a discriminating mind.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Sun Tzu

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that there are five constant factors that you have to consider when you are planning your military strategy.

  1. The Moral Law: The people have to be prepared to follow their ruler, despite any danger they may face by doing so.
  2. Heaven: This signifies day or night; heat or cold; spring, summer, fall or winter; and time of the day.
  3. Earth: Signifies distance to cover, open ground and narrow passages to travel, probability of life and death, danger and security.
  4. The Commander: Stands for courage and strictness, benevolence, sincerity and wisdom.
  5. Method and Discipline: How will food get to the troops? How will military expenditures be managed? How will the army be subdivided? How will officers be ranked? These are all things to consider and figure out.

When determining military conditions, objectively and honestly, compare your “enemy” to “yourself” because this can often decide success or failure; victory or defeat.

Seven Things to Consider That Determines Victory or Defeat

Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral Law (as defined above)?

  1. Which of the two generals have the most ability?
  2. With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth?
  3. On which side is Discipline most rigorously enforced?
  4. Which army is stronger?
  5. On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  6. In which army is there greater constancy in reward and punishment?

No one ever benefits from a lengthy war and the object should be victory, not lengthy campaigns, says Sun Tzu. There are however five essential for victory.

Five Essential for Victory

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all ranks.
  4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

Five Dangers That May Affect a General

  1. Recklessness which leads to destruction.
  2. Cowardice which leads to capture.
  3. A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults.
  4. A delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame.
  5. Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

Great Ideas from The Art of War

  1. Do everything to prevent defeat and wait for the opportunity to defeat the enemy and attack their weaknesses. This teaches patience.
  2. It is just as easy to lead a large army of men as a few men, it’s all in the way you divide the men. A test of true leadership.
  3. Whoever is first to the field has the advantage as they wait for the enemy who will be rushing to catch up. Don’t squander the lead you have, work to gain more of an advantage.
  4. Do not repeat the tactics that served you well in the past, shake things up and try new methods and techniques based on the circumstances. The past is not always the perfect predictor for the present and future.
  5. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and succeed is a “heaven-born captain.” This is flexibility in leadership.
  6. We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with our neighbours. Get to know someone first before getting into a partnership or alliance.
  7. We shall be unable to turn natural advantage to account unless we make use of local guides. The best way to enter a foreign market is through the locals.
  8. Do not rely on the enemy not showing up, but instead prepare to receive them. If you know your enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and Earth, you may make your victory complete. Preparation takes away a lot of anxiety and fear.
  9. Throw your soldiers into positions where there is no escape and they will prefer death to flight. If they face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Face your fears and you can conquer anything.
  10. The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact. Let go of arrogance and keep your ego in check.

During and after reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu, I realized that a lot of wisdom he shares can be used in many different contexts, and some can be applied to business. I recommend The Art of War, but I suggest that while you are reading it, do not think of the book as one about military strategy, but a metaphor for something that’s relevant in your world, whatever that might be.

UPDATE: First published in September 2011

 The Art Of War The Art of War (AmazonClassics Edition) The Book of Five Rings: The Original Edition The Book of Five Rings The Book of Five Rings: A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword

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