Sun Tsu: The Art Of War… And Business!

I recently received a call from a young designer who I met when she was in art school. I reviewed her portfolio and several years later at a local graphic design group meeting, she reintroduced herself and thanked me for being kind and helpful in that review. She became an avid reader of my articles on the design business and while telling me on that phone call about a job from hell, she said she needed to “borrow (my) bastardness.

Sun Tsu: The Art Of War… And Business!

Apparently she thought I was tough in client negotiations and thought she was being too timid with a no-win situation from which she needed to expel herself. I laughed and told her it wasn’t that I was a bastard to clients – I just knew how to face difficult situations.

“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on,” I told her, as I was fond of quotes that may strike chords of easy understanding in odd situations.

“What?” she replied. It wasn’t meant to clear up her problem but to ease her opinion of my business acumen.

“It’s a quote from Sun Tsu’s (Sun Tzu) The Art of War,” I explained. “I’ve been through this many times in my career, so I know how to combat the situation.”

After some advice on how to deal with her problem and a few more Sun Tsu (pronounced Sun Sue) quotes… with detailed breakdowns of how they applied to the design business and dealing with clients, she followed the advice, delivered the project and got paid. A victory for her and the client survived and offered more work a few weeks later.

In the end, she learned an important lesson from Sun Tsu: “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

Who Was Sun Tsu?

Sun Tzu, also known as Sun Tze or Sun Wu in other translations, was a military general serving under King Helü of Wu but his life is placed somewhere in the period of 722–481 BC. He is a historical figure whose authenticity is questioned by historians. Modern scholars accept his existence and place the completion of The Art of War in the Warring States Period (476–221 BC), based on the descriptions of warfare in the text, and on the similarity of text’s prose to other works completed in the early Warring States period.

Whatever you may want to believe, the book is not only standard reading for military theorists and many great generals throughout history but has also become increasingly popular among political leaders and those in business management. Despite its title, The Art of War addresses strategy in a broad fashion, touching upon public administration and planning. Although the text outlines theories of battle, it also advocates diplomacy and cultivating relationships with other nations as essential to the health of a state.

How It Relates To Business

Are the principles of war really different from business? Planning, negotiation, outflanking, victory and restoration are key to both war and business. How often do you hear, “I’m fighting the client on these points,” “it’ll be a real battle when it comes to getting paid for all of the changes they ordered,” “we need to negotiate a few points with the client before all hell breaks out,” “that ended up as a victory instead of a bloody defeat” and other statements you’ll witness or speak during and after a project?

Maybe we’re just too familiar with militaristic sayings that abound in our society. Could it be the popularity of war movies? Certainly the fondness for Schwartzenegger movies have their effect on sayings bandied about offices, such as when something goes horribly wrong and someone calls out, “get to da choppa!”

One of Tsu’s quotes, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” encompasses the ultimate goal of a business negotiation. While Tsu also covers the use of deception in war, business should be absolutely transparent. The approach and process should be the utmost between client and vendor or worker and boss, but does that truly happen in reality? More often interpersonal relationships in business is more of a chess game. Some say it’s greed and fear that drives all business relationships. A sad view on business, indeed.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” wrote Tsu. Does this point to the need for transparency in all dealings or just that every consideration and angle must be understood before acting?

Acts Of War!

When a client makes an outrageous request, perhaps for free work, it’s an attack on your livelihood. When scope creep begins in a project, he is invading your agreement. When milestones are not met with the required payments, your treaties have been broken. Acts of aggression!

“Hence that general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack,” according to Tsu.

When asked for free work, remind the client that you have hard costs that must be covered or even the “free” job costs you money. When scope creep enrages you, confront the client with costs associated with such creep. Communicate to the “enemy” the costs of aggressive intrusion and breaking the treaty (or contract, so to speak).

“Order or disorder depends on organization; courage or cowardice on circumstances; strength or weakness on dispositions.”

All negotiations start with your confidence in not only your ability to complete a project with superior results but in being paid for those results and the efforts behind them. When being asked to work for free, whether upfront for whatever reasons, or increasing your work output for no extra fee, which lowers your final tally, you must find your courage and strength and control the dispositions or you will lose. In war you lose your life. In business, you lose your livelihood, although what is it really all that different except one ends your suffering quickly.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Simply, know your business before negotiating. Go into talks having won because you know your bottom line! There will be pushing and taking and giving and meeting half way here and there. Unless you have a posted price list for your services, you are in the business of negotiating. Even with that, you are in the business to survive and make a profit.

“Tsu” Your Company!

“A leader leads by example, not by force,” Tsu advises future generals. Having been in a position of leadership and in positions of being led, I agree wholeheartedly as I’m sure you do, too!

Likewise, “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,” Tsu also wrote.

This deals with employee engagement. Who will work harder and with more loyalty? An employee who is at odds with the company because they feel threatened or because they feel they are part of the team and valued? At one large corporation for which I worked, they posted manifestos through the hallways and departments stating how the employees were “number one.” Unfortunately, employees were treated like “number two,” if you know what I mean. Engagement was almost non-existent and despite yearly surveys where employees rated treatment and confidence very low, the company refused to address the concerns. Profits sunk, layoffs increased, engagement continued to sink and eventually the company will lose the battle against competitors.

Can you count on your employer for fair treatment? Tsu obviously has a unique view: “All warfare is based on deception.”

Unfortunately, you may, if without fear of termination, want to go into the company cafeteria and shout your displeasure with how employees are treated. That’s not good advice and you won’t find it in The Art of War. However, along those lines, my uncle, as I entered my first corporate job, advised me to, “keep every piece of paper.”

I followed his advice and found that the deception of having the backup of information, although some might label it as evidence and Tsu would call it weaponry, was vital in conflicts that arise in the workplace. The deception is doing one’s work with a happy smile and still locking the door behind you. A famous passage from some Sinbad movie is, “trust in Allah but tie up your camel.” Good advice.

As for the time when you must use such paperwork (i.e., emails, notes, post-its, corporate memos, etc.), my favored advice from Tsu is, “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” Let them know you mean business by feeling the tip of your spear.

Tough times force businesses to adapt but it is HOW they do it that promotes their future sustainability. To quote Sun Tsu, “anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

Are Coworkers “Frenemies?”

In “office politics,” there are odd interpersonal relationships between people with different personality types. As sad as it is, you have to agree that in many office situations, large and small, there are clashes between coworkers that eventually spiral out of control and someone has to win while someone has to lose. It is not always the one who is right who prevails. As with warring nations, there are allies one must seek and with who you must bond for strength and protection. The employee who stands alone is vulnerable.

Think about your present or past situation in the office. Tsu has several thoughts that will help reign in dealing with that on a daily basis.

“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Discourse in an office is met not with siding with the party that may be right but with the quickest and easiest way of ending such discourse. It is often the person who is easiest to replace who is sacrificed.

In many office situations, especially in hard economic times, those who you deal with on a daily basis and share close quarters, you will call your “friends.” Too often I hear people ask me why their “friends” have abandoned them once they have left their former company. We all experience it. Is it out of fear for one’s own existence or just proximity that creates bonds so easily broken? There is no easy explanation; only the realization that it exists and must be a consideration in all dealings in the ugly world of office politics and the allies one has to collect.

Some say the best way to stay out of trouble is to stay below the radar. In fact, it is, in my experience, those who kept their heads low in the trenches and stayed silent that survived. It was those who charged the guns of challenge and rose to champion causes of change and innovation that fell.

Tsu advises, “engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

If you press a coworker or supervisor too hard, even in a situation where you are in the right, you will be viewed as “combative” or “confrontational.” While it is true that you should protect your career in situations where you are accused of wrongdoing but know you are innocent of any charges, cornering your accuser, especially if they are in a management position. Part of the battle is to overcome and succeed but you must leave your foe an out and let them save face.

I had a boss who liked to call people into her office and accuse them of some wrongdoing, make them breakdown into tears and then build them up again. Yes, it was sick and disturbed and her self-affirmation game was against corporate rules but no one would dare turn her in to human resources for doing so. When my turn came, she spoke about “perceptions about me.”

I argued that reality and actions were not perception and perceptions were groundless. I’ve always been a skilled debater and she was no match for me. By the time I left her office, she would be in tears. The only thing that was accomplished was she set her sights on destroying me and it made my future workdays miserable. Had I just accepted her little game, she would have been satisfied and there would be no win or loss as far as the battle was concerned.

“Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.”

“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

If I had just let her have her odd psychological win, resulting emails about the incident would have provided the ammunition for a greater battle. In essence, she would have handed me the bullets on a silver platter.

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

There were incidents over my career where I knew I had to use my enemies to tie their own nooses. After heinous meetings, I found I could either use their own confused emails against them or send an email that lured them forward into a trap. In one instance, I wrote about the disbelief of an action on the part of one enemy and sent it to another in a “divide and conquer” move. The email was returned with enough input as to act as a piece of evidence against the other person. Sometimes you must form an alliance with your enemies against a common foe. The old saying is, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That wasn’t Sun Tsu, as far as I know but it fits into his teachings.

“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”

Everyone eventually gets what’s coming to them. I’ve seen horrid managers who seem to cruise through their careers. I’ve cursed the powers for letting good people leave or be fired due to these wastes of human flesh but, I have also seen these people eventually fall and they fall hard, never to regain the same position, money or power and to them, that is worse then death.

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”

Sometimes, you just have to let things go. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Even small battle have a winner and a loser. Any general will tell you that small skirmishes will only drag out a war and be too costly. Actually, Tsu has another apt quote on that (as if you couldn’t guess): “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Be A Leader By Example

“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.”

“Hence a commander who advances without any thought of winning personal fame and withdraws in spite of certain punishment, whose only concern is to protect his people and promote the interests of his ruler, is the nation’s treasure. Because he fusses over his men as if they were infants, they will accompany him into the deepest valleys; because he fusses over his men as if they were his own beloved sons, they will die by his side. If he is generous with them and yet they do not do as he tells them, if he loves them and yet they do not obey his commands, if he is so undisciplined with them that he cannot bring them into proper order, the will be like spoiled children who can be put to no good use at all.”

There was a general, although I don’t remember who, that insisted he live like his soldiers, eating the same food, living in the same tent, wearing the same clothing and suffering the same hours and elements. He said it was so he would know how far they could be pushed. Aside from that knowledge, he had the side effect of having his army admire and respect him and so, they fought harder and followed all of his orders without question.

Think about when difficult assignments come your way. Are you given a task that is impossible and your manager walks away, expecting it to be done without question? How much grumbling do you do? How many shortcuts do you take? Do you truly care about winning?

“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.”

As a leader, it is important to play to people’s strengths. Whether a large department or small, dividing numbers and assigning jobs based on people’s strengths will create a strong and effective force.

Is one designer great at type but terrible at color? Pair them with someone who is the opposite and the team will create top level work. Create “squads” of people to work as a team, based on individual strengths and the whole will be stronger and more productive then just the individuals.

When The Battle Is Over

So, is war truly like business? In war we see the best and worst of humanity. There is cruelty, barbarism, sadism, heroism and self-sacrifice in both. Wars eventually end and the rebuilding begins. Every conqueror in history has always kept an eye towards what happens when the enemy is vanquished. How trade and commerce and normalcy will be restored under changed territorial lines. Over the past couple of millennium, leaders have realized the truth of an aforementioned quote, “… a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

In business there are liars, backstabbers, thieves, scammers, ruthless people, sadists, heroes, mentors and those who seek to innovate for the good of the company and coworkers.

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace,” as Tsu wrote, “whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

It was said after ten years of the Vietnam War, that battlefield medical actions and innovation helped evolve the treatments and knowledge of the medical field by over 100 years due to the forced need to keep the wounded alive. When dealing with bullet and shrapnel wounds, front line doctors and nurses had to rely on quick innovative methods to save lives. Experimentation was the only avenue available when a soldier teetered on the edge of death and traditional methods of medicine just wouldn’t work. War, in this case, pushed innovation out of necessity. In business, survival should also drive innovation.

Unfortunately, there are those who stop at nothing to suppress innovation, control power and destroy others merely for self-satisfaction. The “enemy,” so to speak. If you wish to survive their declaration of war upon you and emerge victorious from their attacks and campaign of battles, I suggest you pick up a copy of Sun Tsu: The Art of War. There are numerous books and articles available on becoming a better businessperson. You’ll find most are based on the man who said, “Thus we may know that there are five essentials 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 its 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.”

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5 Comments

  1. Nice article.I really enjoy this article.Thank you very much.

  2. I picked up a copy of the book today. Thanks for writing this article!

  3. This is a great correlation between Sun Tzu’s principles and business!

  4. As far as giving opponents a golden bridge to retreat on, I prefer Ulysses S. Grant’s statement that “my only terms are your complete and unconditional surrender.”

    BTW, the general who ate what his men ate and lived as they did was Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

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