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Strategy Ideas From ”The Art of War” by Sun Tzu Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Aug 30th, 2020


Even though the range of subjects, addressed by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is indeed rather vague, it is still possible to define the treatise’s main discursive premise – waging war (indulging in competition) is a highly systemic pursuit, which requires a great deal of preliminary planning. In its turn, this particular requirement is predetermined by the fact that the activity in question is the subject to the rules of thermodynamics – something that makes it possible to proceed with it in a thoroughly rational (analytical) manner.

According to Sun Tzu (the treatise’s alleged author), this is the key to success in the mentioned undertaking, “Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat… It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose” (Giles, 2005, p. 40). In light of this particular provision, it is fully appropriate to draw parallels between the organizations and armies, as the entities that aim to achieve essentially the same set of objectives.

As Kilinc, Oncu, and Tasgit (2012) noted, while referring to the ideas contained in the treatise, “Firms and armies have similar understanding and implementations in many respects… (They are) open systems affected by environmental (inner-outer) changes, hierarchical structure” (p. 9). As the open thermodynamic systems, armies and commercial organizations are bound to aspire to win a ‘higher ground’ while dealing with their rivalries.

Thus, with respect to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, ‘strategy’ can be defined as the creation of the objective preconditions for an army/firm to have a heightened chance of coming to a winner out of the military/competitive clash with the rivalry. Probably the main of such preconditions has to do with ensuring that the manner, in which military-commanders/managers seek to achieve this particular goal, is reflective of these individuals’ willingness to observe the principles of systemic thinking.

In their turn, these principles define the undertaking’s sub-sequential phases, “Situation appraisal; formulation of goals and strategies; evaluation of strategies; implementation of strategies; strategic controls” (Wu, Chih, & Ya-Jung, 2004, p. 397). This provides yet another qualitative dimension to the proposed definition of strategy – the concerned notion implies that those in charge of strategic planning must think two steps ahead of their competitors, while never ceasing to remain ready to adjust the chosen strategic approach to be fully consistent with what happened to be the external circumstances of relevance at the time (Lee & Sai, 2000).

In other words, to be able to prove an effective strategist (either as a military-commander or manager), one must not only be able to layout a well-thought plan for gaining an upper hand in a particularly competitive field, but also to anticipate what may account for the continually transforming challenges of this plan’s practical implementation.


There can be only a few doubts as to the fact that the environment scanning techniques, such as SWOT and PEST, do directly relate to the methodology of the book’s strategic assessments. The reason for this is apparent – one of the main ideas promoted by The Art of War is that the appropriateness of a particularly strategic move, on the part of a military commander, is measured with respect to what happened to be the geographical characteristics of the landscape, where the battle is to take place.

For example, according to the treatise, a military leader must be fully aware that enabling his army to seize a higher ground (prior to engaging the enemy), will provide him with the advantage of enjoying a strategic initiative in the battle, “The particular advantage of securing heights and defiles is that your actions cannot then be dictated by the enemy” (Giles, 2005, p. 108). Consequently, the army’s advantage of ‘holding heights’ will define the essence of the would-be deployed engagement-tactics, on its part.

The conceptual premise behind SWOT and PEST resonates with such an idea perfectly well – both of these environment-assessing methodologies are concerned with enabling the organization to realize what accounts for its competitive advantages/weaknesses, defined by the surrounding competitive environment. In the aftermath of having identified the organization’s strengths and flaws, regarding the qualitative dynamics in the targeted market, managers will be able to choose in favor of a circumstantially sound strategy to address the challenge of ensuring that their organization remains ahead of the competition.

This, of course, suggests that in full accordance with the treatise’s main postulates, conducting the SWOT/PEST analysis is primarily about pinpointing at what may account for the externally applied stimuli, within the context of how a particular organization intends to deal with its competitors. As Kilinc et al. (2012) argued, “The analysis of the environmental conditions is one of the most important processes in the stage of forming and implementing strategies” (p. 14).

Whereas The Art of War encourages military leaders to pay much attention to what happened to be the battleground’s physical features, the methodological framework of SWOT and PEST presupposes placing the research-focus on the environmental aspects of the organization’s functioning. Nevertheless, despite being concerned with the seemingly incompatible subject matters, both practices are equally reflective of their affiliates’ tendency to apply a systemic approach to defining the nature of the relationship between causes and effects, within the competitive setting. Therefore, it indeed makes much sense drawing parallels between the conceptual provisions of The Art of War, on one hand, and the mentioned environment-scanning techniques, on the other.

Chapters Review

Laying plans

In this chapter, Sun Tzu makes a few references to the fact that a military commander must be qualified, in the sense of possessing the psychological traits of a true leader, ”The commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness” (Giles, 2005, p. 36). Apparently, the same applies to the heads of large companies, as well. After all, it is now being commonly suggested that the main reason why the Apple Corporation proved utterly successful is that its former CEO Steve Jobs did possess the mentioned leadership qualities. This, in turn, allowed him to inspire the company’s employees – something that had a positive effect on the overall measure of Apple’s competitiveness

Attack by stratagem

According to one of the suggestions, contained in this chapter, “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting” (Giles, 2005, p. 46). The suggestion’s validity is best illustrated, in regard to the competitive strategy of the already mentioned Apple Corporation. Because Apple has always been very quick incorporating the most recent technological breakthroughs in the line of its products, this allowed the company to benefit from holding a number of patent-monopolies – something that automatically puts the competing rivalries in the disadvantaged position, because they have no other option but to follow the ‘rules of the game’ set by Apple (Vroman, 1997).


One of the main ideas promoted throughout the entirety of this a particular chapter is that it represents the matter of crucial importance for a military leader to make sure that his immediate subordinates obey orders in a speedy and efficient manner. The reason for this is that it enables him to exercise close control of the army, which in turn will account for the important strategic advantage in the battlefield.

As the treatise’s author pointed out, “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” (Giles, 2005, p. 58). In the world of business, the idea’s validity can be shown, concerning the sheer speed with which the Toyota Corporation adjusts its production lines to the assemblage of new car-models. This specific advantage was in part brought about by the fact that the company’s employees are deeply committed to the conventions of Toyota’s corporate culture (Low & Teo, 2005).

The use of spies

The treatise encourages army generals to resort to the help of spies, as the mean of remaining fully informed about the enemy’s intentions. The term ‘industrial espionage’ implies that the concerned practice continues to be widely deployed in today’s corporate world, as well. To exemplify the soundness of this suggestion, we can refer to the recent instances of the Chinese manufacturers of high-tech gadgets having been caught trying to steal industrial secrets from their competitors in the West.


Giles, L. (2005). . Web.

Kilinc, I., Oncu, M. A., & Tasgit, Y. E. (2012). Sun Tzu’s principles of war art and today’s competition strategies: A relative approach. International Journal of Research in Business and Social Science, 1(1), 8-17.

Lee, S., & Sai, A. (2000). Building a balanced scorecard with SWOT analysis, and implementing Sun Tzu’s the art of business management strategies” on QFD methodology. Managerial Auditing Journal, 15(1), 68-76.

Low, S., & Teo, H. (2005). Modern-day lean construction principles: Some questions on their origin and similarities with Sun Tzu’s art of war. Management Decision, 43(4), 523-541.

Vroman, H. (1997). Sun Tzu and the art of business. The Academy of Management Executive, 11(1), 129-130.

Wu, W., Chih, H., & Ya-Jung, W. (2004). A study of strategy implementation as expressed through Sun Tzu’s principles of war. Industrial Management & Data Systems, 104(5), 396-408.

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