13 Business Lessons I Learned from Sun Tsu's The Art of War

13 Business lessons I learned from Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”

In the world of nonfiction, there are a handful of classic books that it’s assumed one should read. One of those books is Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, a Chinese military treatise from approximately the 5th Century BC. As a pacifist, books on warfare have never really appealed to me, but this little book has influenced both Eastern and Western thinking in business and general life. So, when I happened upon a free Librivox audiobook recording, I decided to give it a go and to my surprise, I quite enjoyed it! In-keeping with Sun Tsu’s original 13 chapters, here are the 13 lessons I learned about business. 

Lesson #1: Know thy enemy 

Perhaps the most famous of Sun Tsu’s lessons is: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”In business, the enemy is your competitors. To succeed in business, you need to know what your competitors are offering, how they’re pricing their products or services, and so on. You can’t find your USP if you have no idea what your competitors are doing. 

Lesson #2Small can be mighty 

As a start-up, knowing your competitors can be demoralising, especially when you realise they’re a million dollar business. But as Sun Tsu says, “Great results can be achieved with small forces.” Don’t underestimate your ability to achieve big successes as a small business. In fact, being a small business can have many advantages, such as flexibility, simplicity, and fluidity, so focus on those. 

Lesson #3Love your people like your family 

As you grow, you might develop a team of employees or freelancers. Whether they are in-house or outsourced, “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” (I add “or daughters” to that quote.) In other words, look after your team and treat them like you would your own family, not as resources to be used. 

Lesson #4: Be a just leader 

How do you treat your employees well? “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’.” Be kind, just, fair, honest, moral, and empowering—that’s how. 

Lesson #5Look after your people 

To be a good leader and love your staff like your family, then you have to take care of them. “Carefully study the wellbeing of your men and don’t overtax them.” In other words, don’t overwork your people. Check in with them to see how they’re doing. Offer resources to improve their wellbeing. Give them support when they need it.  

Lesson #6Empower your people 

However, looking after your people doesn’t mean treat them like children. On the contrary, “the principle upon which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.” In essence, empower your people and put your confidence in them so they have independence and autonomy in their role, so they feel trusted and believed in. 

Lesson #7Reward your people 

When collective hard work delivers success for your business, reward your employees with a share of the benefits instead of keeping them all for yourself. “When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided among your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefits of your soldiers.” That might be bonuses, a meal out, a day off, or a share in the company. 

Lesson #8: Avoid the ego 

In business, there are inevitably leaders who are arrogant or self-serving, or who started a company to reap the rewards for themselves. However, Sun Tsu says, “No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen.” In the battleground of business, being a good leader means setting aside your ego. For me, it means running a business primarily to add value to the world, not for me. 

Lesson #9Think before you act 

Sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, many people—leaders included—make rash decisions without taking the time to really think them through. Instead, ponder and deliberate before you make a moveResearch, evaluate your options, weigh up the potential outcomes and impacts, then decide. 

Lesson #10: Change not for the sake of it 

In some companies, change happens on a regular basis, be it restructures or approaches, but for little other reason than for change’s sake. Sun Tsu says “Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained.” Don’t make changes unless they lead to improvement and forward progress. 

Lesson #11Be enterprising 

On the other hand, there are companies that fail to change when it’s necessary and end up stagnating, then falling behind their competitors. As Sun Tsu says, “Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise, for the result is a waste of time and general stagnation.” Be enterprising, be innovative.  

Lesson #12: Find the silver lining 

Of course, leaders will undoubtedly face challenges and trials in the course of business. The trick is in finding the silver lining in every cloudAs Sun Tsu puts it,If in the midst of difficulties, we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.” So, don’t see your challenges as problems, but as opportunities. 

Lesson #13Collaboration not competition 

One of the most famous lines is “Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.” What does this mean? I see it as meaning find other ways to win, rather than fighting, which fits in well with my pacifist beliefs. For me, this means collaborate, share knowledge, and combine your efforts so you can all succeed—instead of fighting to be the victor.