7 Business Lessons from "The Art of War"

Written more than 2,000 years ago, The Art of War was written by Sun Tzu as a guide to military strategy. However, many of the book’s lessons can be applied to the business world.

This book has become a must read for business leaders because it serves as an excellent guide to strategy, tactics and success in the world of business.

Here are 7 business lessons learned from The Art of War:


1)    All Warfare Is Based On Deception

When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
— Page 3

Business, for the most part, is a zero-sum game. It is war. Companies battle for market share, customers, and sales. You must keep your competition unaware of your actions.

When Snapchat rejected Facebook’s offer for the company, Facebook made it seem like they were inactive. Instead, they worked on a new version of Instagram that contained many of the features found in Snapchat and is often referred to as a “Snapchat clone”.



2)    Supreme Excellence Is Winning Without Fighting

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.
— Page 7

Winning every battle is excellent. But, winning every battle without having to fight is supreme excellence. You don’t always have to fight in business to win. One can sell their company, agree to a merge with a competitor or acquire a competitor.

The rise in self-publishing and eBooks has led to increased competition in the publishing industry. Instead of fighting amongst each other, Penguin Books merged with Random House and created Penguin Random House. This created the largest trade book publishing company in the world.


3)    Don’t Be Second

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.
— Page 15

The field, in this analogy, is the marketplace. It is important to get your product into the marketplace before your rivals. You want to be aware of trends and shifts in the market and get new products to market ahead of your competitors.

When Elon Musk saw a need for cars that didn’t produce carbon emission and used renewable resources for fuel he started Tesla. Other car companies didn’t believe electric cars would catch on. In Q3 of 2016, the Tesla Model S had almost double the sales of the Mercedes S-Class. Tesla was first in the field, while Mercedes has to hasten to battle.

Illustration of Art of War author Sun Tzu

Illustration of Art of War author Sun Tzu

4)    Never Announce Your Attack

The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions.
— Page 16

This is often referred to as the element of surprise. If a company doesn’t know what you’ll do next, they can’t plan to defend themselves. They are forced to prepare by distributing resources among varies areas.

A prime example for this is Apple. Apple is notoriously secretive; employees aren’t allowed to talk with other people in the organization about certain products unless they are involved in the project.


Let’s use the Apple Watch as an example:

Dec 2011: Rumors about an Apple-developed wearable device circulate

Feb 2013: WSJ reports that Apple is working on an iOS-based smartwatch

Feb 2013: Bloomberg reports that 100 people are working on the project

July 2013: Financial Times reports Apple hires more people to work on the Apple watch

April 2014: Apple’s CEO says they will launch a product BUT doesn’t say what it is

June 2014: Reuters reports that production will soon start

Sept 2014: Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, introduces the Apple Watch


Apple kept the project quiet for several years. Even when major publications wrote articles associated with the Apple watch, the company didn’t say a word. The CEO said a new product was in development but didn’t say what it was. Never announce your attack to your competition.


5)    If The Left Is Strong, Attack From The Right

Should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.
— Page 16

Every company, no matter their size, is weak in one area or another. Even well-established, multi-billion dollar corporations have their weaknesses.

Let’s take Facebook (FB) as an example. FB has over a billion users but isn’t allowed in China. Thus, several FB clones have appeared in China including Renren.

This also means that FB messenger isn’t allowed in China. However, WeChat is allowed and has over 1.1 billion registered accounts. If FB focuses its resources on the Asian market, it may weaken its strength in the US market to other social media companies such as Snapchat. 


6)    Warfare Requires Drums And Flags

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.
— Page 21

In war, there are generals and soldiers. In business, there are executives and employees. However, in both fields, tools are needed to help the leader share their vision and plan.

To communicate their vision for the company, CEOs usually hold an all-hands meeting and share videos of it to all employees. This is the modern-day drum.

When a company wants to change their image, and re-brand themselves, it changes its logo or slogan. One can tell a lot about a company from their logo. Think back to the amount of press Google received for updated their logo. This is the modern-day flag.


7)    Avoid The 5 Dangerous Faults

There are five dangerous faults which 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 honor which is sensitive to shame;
(5) over-solicitude for his men which exposes him to worry and trouble.
— Page 24

These are the five dangerous faults of a leader. Being too brave can lead to recklessness, but not being brave at all can lead to cowardice. A leader must be logical and not be provoked by insults from the enemy (This related to my article about Ego).


 A leader must know that there is no shame in running away from battle to fight another day. Lastly, a leader must care for their troops but it is impossible for s/he to attend to every single problem. A good leader treats their workers well while staying focused on the larger task at hand.



These are just a few of the lessons learned from The Art of War.

This book is only 68 pages long and less than five dollars on Amazon. It is a quick read and a great investment.

If you’re interested in learning more, click the link below.

The Art Of War