The Art of War: A Strategic Guide for Business Battle [Book Outline & Summary]

Why is Sun Tzu's The Art of War relevant to business professionals today?

Even though The Art of War is a 2,500 year old manual for military strategists, it contains lessons which can be applied to business, leadership, and many relevant areas of our lives today. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The importance of planning and preparation
  • The need for self-awareness and self-assessment
  • The value of flexibility
  • The role of deception
  • The significance of understanding the environment
  • The power of efficiency
  • The wisdom of conservation
  • The importance of developing strong alliances

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is an ancient Chinese manual on war and military strategy that has fascinated readers since it was written 2500 years ago. The profound wisdom contained in this text is applicable to more than just strategies of war, with advice that can be applied to multiple aspects of life, including business, leadership and marketing strategies.

The lessons provided in The Art of War aren’t just strategies for success on the military battlefield. They represent a set of invaluable tools for small business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders in any field. Keep reading to find out how.

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At the Heart of The Art of War

The Art of War was originally meant to serve as a guideline for military science and strategy. Emphasis is placed on remaining adaptable, thorough planning and preparation, and deeply understanding the strengths and weaknesses of oneself and one’s opponents. This book is about fighting real battles, with specific lessons on strategies like how to attack by fire and the use of spies, but these principles can be applied in a metaphorical sense to various interpersonal conflicts and competitive situations.

Who the Heck Needs a Military Strategy Manual for Business?

While intended for military strategists, the principles expressed here go beyond warfare, and are applicable in areas like business, leadership, sports and human behavior. These concepts are especially useful for small business owners, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and anyone navigating the competitive world of business. If you’re looking to gain an edge over your competition, manage conflicts, strengthen your decision-making skills, or develop new styles of leadership, The Art of War contains a multitude of applicable lessons for you.

Sun Tzu: Philosopher and Military Strategist

Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War

While there is some debate amongst histories about who wrote The Art of War, many believe it was penned by Sun Tzu (sometimes written as Sun Tsu), a legendary Chinese military strategist and philosopher from the 6th century BC. According to Han historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Sun Tzu caught the attention of Ho Lu, the king of Wu, with this strategic masterpiece. Ssu-ma Ch’ien told the story of how he went on to convince the king of his military prowess, and from this shocking story, Sun Tzu comes off as rather brutal.

As the story goes, Sun Tzu was challenged by the king: could his theories be applied to women? So 180 women were brought to him from the palace, and as Sun Tzu was at first unable to get the women to follow his commands, he ordered two leaders to be beheaded, against the wishes of the king, who was not keen on losing two of his favorite concubines. The remaining women quickly fell in line, obeying Sun Tzu’s every command, and the king was convinced that Sun Tzu could lead any army and made him general.

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Fundamental Ideas for Business Success Contained in The Art of War

The essence of The Art of War can be broken down into two main categories: the characteristics and attributes of a great leader, and strategies for victory in battle. These are covered over thirteen chapters, written in a proverbial style that is succinct yet full of deep meaning to be contemplated and uncovered.

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1. Laying Plans

In this vital first chapter, Sun Tzu begins by asserting the importance of the art of war to the State, emphasizing that the matter is a “road either to safety or to ruin”. With this in mind, Sun Tzu focuses on the necessity of strategic planning and careful analysis, including the importance of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your team as well as those of your competitors. He shares five crucial factors to consider when seeking to determine the conditions of a battle:

    • The Moral Law: The Moral Law is what causes the people to be in complete accord with the leader. The alignment of the people with their leader ensures they will follow “regardless of their lives, undismayed by danger”. In a business context, this speaks to the need for a clear, compelling organizational mission, encompassed by your company vision statement with strong values that inspire loyalty and commitment from employees.
    • Heaven: Here, heaven refers to night and day, cold and heat, and times and seasons. In business, timing can make or break you. This factor emphasizes the importance of understanding and adapting to changing conditions such as emerging trends and economic cycles and understanding the most opportune moment to act based on the “seasons” of the market.
    • Earth: Earth is about distances, danger and security, environment, and the changes of life and death. This principle focuses on the significance of knowing the geographical advantages and challenges of various terrains. In business, this can be seen as understanding the business landscape – factors such as the market conditions and the competitive environment, as well as understanding your place in the marketplace and how to effectively leverage your position.
    • The Commander: The Commander stands for the virtues of a great leader, such as wisdom, benevolence, courage, sincerity and strictness. This underscores the role of leadership in business. Just as an army’s success is tied to the abilities of its general, the success of a business is directly affected by the qualities of its leadership.
    • Method and Discipline: This principle relates to the organization of the army, its logistics, and its operations, including the supply chain, control of expenses, and the management of officers and soldiers. In business, the importance of operational efficiency cannot be overstated. Businesses need structure and discipline, such as setting clear expectations and boundaries, in order to ensure resources are managed efficiently and the organization is running smoothly.

Sun Tzu asserts that mastery of these five factors ensures victory, before he offers seven questions to consider when forecasting victory or defeat. Rewritten for a business context, these questions might look like the following:

    1. Which of the two leaders is aligned with the company’s core values and inspires loyalty in the employees? Check out our book summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People to learn more.
    2. Which of the two leaders has greater competence?
    3. With whom lie the advantages of market trends, economic cycles, and customer preferences?
    4. Which company has more stringent and consistent company protocols and standards?
    5. Which business demonstrates stronger output and performance?
    6. Which company has leaders and employees that are better trained?
    7. In which organization is there greater consistency in the application of incentives and consequences?

All together, Sun Tzu says these questions will give a very clear picture for one to predict the outcome of a battle before it begins. Considering these questions before embarking on a business venture can similarly help you determine the likelihood of success.

Chapter one also touches on the importance of taking advantage of circumstances “beyond the ordinary rules”. Sun Tzu emphasizes that “All warfare is based on deception” and encourages readers not to show your hand to the opponent, rather to make them think you are weak when you are strong, that you are inactive when you are active, and so on. Finding your opponent’s weaknesses and exploiting them is another tactic Sun Tzu shares, as well as the importance of evading your opponent if they are of superior strength.

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2. Waging War

“Waging War” is all about the cost of conflict, both in physical resources and human capital. Underscoring the importance of efficiency and speed, Sun Tzu asserts that prolonged warfare has never benefited a country. Interpreted in the context of business management, this is about resource management and understanding the trust costs of business, such as the high cost of turnover and employee burnout (see our Complete Guide to Employee Appreciation for Entrepreneurs to learn about ways to prevent turnover and employee burnout). The idea is to be assertive and quick in a fast-paced business environment, aiming to be first on the market and cutting unnecessary delays.

Sun Tzu goes on to discuss the idea of leveraging the spoils of war. In business, this might mean taking advantage of gaps in the market, adopting strategies from other businesses, or even acquiring competitors to gain their resources and customer base.

Sun Tzu warns generals not to engage in battles without a clear purpose or a sure victory. Likewise, business owners and entrepreneurs should choose their battles wisely, being cautious of the competitors they challenge and the projects they embark on, knowing the right way to respond to a customer complaint, and avoiding unnecessary price wars, public disputes or other conflicts that don’t have a clear advantage.

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3. Attack by Stratagem

Chapter three revolves around the idea that it is better to win without fighting, to capture opponents rather than destroy them and to work on efficient strategies for success rather than brute force. In business, this means knowing your advantages and disadvantages well enough to know when to act, and it may mean not engaging in direct competition, but instead finding niche markets, creating partnerships and alliances or using other creative ways to get more customers.

Using strategy and intelligent decision-making is more effective than trying to force business with things like money, resources, manpower or excessive advertisement.

Sun Tzu also writes here about the importance of being adaptable, which is highly applicable to small businesses and entrepreneurs in the quickly changing marketplace where trends affect customer preferences and buying habits. Sun Tzu touches on the importance of strong leadership, and how leaders must understand the capabilities of their team and conditions of their business so that they are set up for success and not failure.

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4. Tactical Dispositions

Here, Sun Tzu discusses defensive and offensive strategies, and when to use various specific tactics on the battlefield. In business, leaders must know how to defend and secure their position and reputation, and know when it is time for offensive strategies like product launches, expansion or aggressive marketing campaigns. Sun Tzu goes on to discuss the importance of positioning on the battlefield. Positioning in the marketplace includes factors such as social media visibility, brand image and value proposition. Check out our book summary of How to Build a StoryBrand to learn about an easy method to build consistent brand messaging within and outside of our company.

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5. Energy

Chapter five focuses on using creativity and timing in building momentum, the importance of prompt, quality decision-making and using indirect tactics in combination with direct tactics to create an endless series of maneuvers. This advice translates to the need for businesses to have both orthodox and unorthodox strategies that work together to create various approaches, so that the market gets what is expected, but competitors are also caught by surprise.

Furthermore, momentum is a potent weapon in business, and understanding the energy of the moment to make prompt, quality decisions is essential. This can mean capitalizing on successes, maintaining market trends, or pushing forward with an effective campaign. Sun Tzu explores how to harness both the energy of your forces and those of the environment, noting the particular power of combined energy versus leaning on a single individual.

The same is true of a business team – the combined forces of your team will be stronger than individual approaches.

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6. Weak Points & Strong

The chapter titled “Weak Points and Strong” is one of the most strategic sections in the book, with specific recommendations for various battlefield situations. All about using the divine art of subtlety and secrecy, Sun Tzu discusses the importance of concealing one’s tactics. He goes on to explain that one must identify and take advantage of the enemy’s weak points, while also knowing one’s own vulnerabilities and drawing the opponent away from them.

Likewise, businesses should always be on the lookout for gaps or weaknesses in their competitors’ strategies, products, or services so that they can tailor their offerings to exploit these weaknesses. Similarly, knowing one’s own weak points can help a business defend themselves against competitors.

Once the weak points and strong points are identified, Sun Tzu again emphasizes the need for adaptability. Just like water runs away from high places and flows downwards, so it goes in battle or business, and the way to success is to adapt strategies that take into account weak and strong points, avoiding the opponent’s strong points and striking at their weak points.

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7. Maneuvering

“Maneuvering” presents a deep dive into the intricacies of strategic positioning of an army. Sun Tzu insists that the challenge in tactical maneuvering lies in “turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain”. Moving an army is about more than getting from one point to another, but necessitates nurturing a harmonious unit and involves avoiding danger while preserving resources and morale. Likewise, when making big moves, business owners and entrepreneurs need to consider employee morale, market trends, and the resources available.

This chapter also highlights the significance of speed and the element of surprise. By being unpredictable and quick, one can catch the enemy off guard, creating opportunities for victory. Yet, Sun Tzu also warns about the dangers of rushing blindly into battle and the importance of careful planning before setting things into motion.

Sun Tzu goes on to emphasize the crucial role of leadership during these maneuvers. Good leadership can keep your employees motivated and cohesive, even in the face of challenges, while poor leadership can lead to chaos, disintegration, or mutiny. Understand and utilizing the unique strengths of each employee can help your company navigate the landscape for your marketplace. Check out our book summary on Quiet: The Power of Introverts to learn more about how to introverts can provide thoughtful approaches to navigating your business’ unique competitive environment.

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8. Variation in Tactics

Chapter eight presents the case for discernment and adapting plans based on changing circumstances. Sun Tzu insists that “there are roads that must not be followed, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.” This is true in business as well, where sometimes it is best to lay low and not participate, biding your time for the right moment, regardless of your initial plans.

Sun Tzu also focuses here on leadership, warning against five faults that could be the ruin of a general. Business leaders are wise to be mindful of these conducts as well:

    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 honor, which is sensitive to shame.
    5. Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
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9. The Army on the March

In “The Army on the March,” Sun Tzu delves into the nuances and strategies concerned with an army in motion. He discusses specific signs that can be taken from carefully observing the movements and behaviors of the enemy and the environment. A business must also anticipate competitor moves and be mindful of market conditions, noticing trends that signal saturated markets, emerging niches or economic downturns.

Observing competitors in a mindful way will help you to predict their next moves.

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10. Terrain

In the tenth chapter, “Terrain,” Sun Tzu categorizes different types of terrains an army might encounter and offers strategies and considerations for each. Recognizing the type of market landscape is also crucial for businesses, and knowing how to navigate the various market landscapes effectively can significantly influence the possibility of success.

Sun Tzu’s advice here on when to engage or avoid the enemy can be directly applied to business competition. There are times when direct competition is beneficial and times when it might be wiser to focus on alternative approaches. Sun Tzu even advises that you disobey the wishes of the ruler: stating that you must fight if victory is sure, and you must not fight if victory is unsure, regardless of what the ruler tells you.

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11. The Nine Situations

“The Nine Situations” describes the different types of battlegrounds that an army might find itself in and details appropriate tactics for each. These situations encompass a broad range of circumstances, from the most advantageous to the most perilous. For business owners and entrepreneurs, this means planning the appropriate tactics for each type of business environment, which may include running day to day operations, entering new markets, competing for highly lucrative markets, navigating markets with lots of competition or encountering situations that threaten your business.

Anticipating common environments and having a plan in place will prepare your business to better navigate changes.

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12. Attack by Fire

“Attack by Fire” describes the various ways to attack an enemy with fire, noting various environmental factors to consider, such as the direction of the wind, and how long it may blow at certain times of day. Sun Tzu recognizes the immense power of destruction that fire can bring to the enemy. In business, this might look like utilizing disruptive strategies that ignite market norms and establish a company’s dominance.

Taking into account any market factors that will positively or negatively influence your strategy is important in the planning process.

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13. The Use of Spies

In Sun Tzu’s final chapter, he highlights the importance of gathering intelligence, both from spies and other sources. Just as foreknowledge can determine the chances of success in war, knowing what’s going on with your competitor in business can be essential. Sun Tzu insists this knowledge is best obtained from people, and describes five types of spies: local spies, inward spies, converted spies, doomed spies, and surviving spies. All information, according to Sun Tzu, begins with converted spies, which are the enemy’s spies who have been turned. In business, this may look like poaching top employees from competitors or hiring consultants with inside knowledge of the market.

For Sun Tzu, the use of spies is not just a tactical advantage but a fundamental aspect of strategic warfare. By understanding the inner workings, plans, and intentions of the competitor, one can be better prepared to counteract their moves or exploit their weaknesses.

Notable Proverbs from Sun Tzu

    1. “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
    2. “Feign disorder, and crush him.”
    3. “Regard your soldiers as children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys.”
    4. “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
    5. “A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”
    6. “There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

Plan, Adapt and Be Mindful to Achieve Victory in the Marketplace

The principals in The Art of War are about more than just military strategy; they’re about the importance of planning, adaptability, and mindfulness. For small business owners and entrepreneurs, this book provides a blueprint for navigating the competitive world of business, making informed decisions, staying flexible and leading with confidence. Whether you’re looking to expand your business, defend against competitors, or gain a deeper insight into the world of business strategy, Sun Tzu’s teachings offer invaluable lessons for business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders of all kinds.

You can find out more about the book and read other reviews, or purchase your own copy on Amazon, or listen on Audible.

Did you enjoy this book review? Make sure to check out the full list of 44 Best Business Books for Entrepreneurs, Startups & Small Business.

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A special high five to Faith Dickens for her outstanding research and contributions to this article. We love working with and supporting like-minded entrepreneurs. Thank you Faith! ❤️

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