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How To Succeed in Business Sun Tzu Style

Sun Tzu’s lessons from The Art of War can easily be applied to your business to help you beat the competition.
Aaron Drotts

Digital Marketing Specialist, Intertek

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the first known text on military strategy. It was written during a time where it made sense for one country to conquer another in order to obtain land, slaves, and resources.

However, Sun Tzu knew that war wasn’t the only way to achieve their goals. They could also subdue opponents without fighting at all by winning battles with influence instead of weapons. Sun Tzu realized that having an advantage over their opponents would result in more than just power — they’d win respect too. Since then this technique has become part of successful business strategies throughout history.

Businesses today might not be threatened by physical violence but they are still ruled by competition and will do anything to gain or maintain their competitive edge over their rivals. Even if a business isn’t in direct competition with another, it might still fall prey to external forces such as the economy and changing customer demands.

As a business leader, your primary goal will be to achieve success by any means necessary. In the beginning, you’ll need to work hard to ensure that your company can compete with others on a level playing field but once established, it might become time for you to explore more subtle methods of success.

Applying Sun Tzu’s Principles in Business

Even though Sun Tzu’s principles were developed in order for one country to conquer another, most strategies can still be applied today. This article will show how these lessons can be used within modern organizations in order to gain an advantage over your competitors without directly going head-to-head.

Check Your Self-Confidence at the Door

Sun Tzu was a master strategist who knew that even if your soldiers are strong, courageous, and well-trained it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically triumph over their opponents. Without the right leadership, any army would be useless so before you can lead, you must first learn how to follow. By being able to identify problem areas in your team’s performance you will have a deeper understanding of what needs to change in order for them to succeed. Sometimes these problems might not revolve around capability but confidence instead. Newer employees may lack confidence in their abilities at first but with encouragement, they’ll develop greater self-assurance which will improve overall performance.

Bad Subordinates Are More Dangerous Than Enemies On The Battlefield

If you’re not able to weed out the lazy, incompetent, or insubordinate members of your team then they can easily become a liability. Even if their performance isn’t affecting the productivity of others, employees are still being held back by others’ incompetence so it’s important for you to take necessary action. Sun Tzu would have made the same decision but his actions would have been much harsher — executing any soldier who didn’t follow orders was once his policy. Although this might seem like an excessive measure, that was exactly why he was feared throughout Asia and his armies were victorious. Recognize that negative behaviors exist within your organization and don’t be afraid to punish poor behavior in order to motivate others into better performance.

Customer Satisfaction Comes First

All businesses are driven by one thing — revenue. The amount of money you make determines the level of resources available to your organization, which in turn affects its overall performance. You might be tempted to increase profits at the expense of other departments but by doing this you’re playing a dangerous game with your business. If your employees lose motivation because you’re not investing enough into their department then they won’t perform well enough to keep customers happy, resulting in lost revenue. Remember that employees represent your company even outside of work hours so if they don’t feel respected or valued by their employers, word will spread about how bad working there is and customer satisfaction will begin to fall.

When it comes to dealing with customers remember that respect isn’t something that is automatically given. You have to show that you’re worthy of their custom with each interaction by being polite, understanding, and most importantly — responsive. Don’t be too proud or lazy to admit your company’s mistakes or shortcomings because if a customer is unhappy then they’ll take their business elsewhere. No matter what the circumstances, always handle problems as soon as possible otherwise you’ll have an angry customer on your hands who won’t hesitate to share their experience via social media channels which will damage your brand’s public image.

You Cannot Win By Offering Compromise

A common misconception about Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War is that his strategies apply only in situations where there are clear winners and losers but this isn’t true because sometimes it may be more practical to offer your opponents something rather than nothing. When you’re arguing or debating please remember that this isn’t a fight and what matters most is winning the argument, not who gets their way. Offering opposition supporters an alternative point of view will show them that they can get at least some of what they want so be prepared to give in if necessary — just don’t do it too often because you don’t want people to take advantage of you!

By inviting constructive criticism from others and making adjustments accordingly you’ll begin building trust with those around you. This will strengthen relationships and encourage co-operation between your employees which will help them embrace change without resistance. Everyone wants to feel like part of a team regardless of whether they work within a small group of people or a huge organization. When employees feel like they’re valued and respected for their expertise and contributions towards the overall goals then you’ll find that meeting deadlines becomes much easier and with minimal conflicts along the way.

Gain The Advantage Through Deception

When in battle, Sun Tzu was well known for his cunning tactics which involved fooling his enemies into following his plans without them realizing what he was up to until it was too late. You can do this in your work environment by taking advantage of others’ mistakes without appearing too suspicious. For example, if one of your employees is struggling to meet an important deadline when all of their colleagues have already completed the assignment then offer them support with completing it on time regardless of whether you have any obligation to do so or not. If you play your cards right then the employee will appreciate your offer of assistance and may even return the favor later on down the line with something that’s equally as valuable to you.

Deception is a vital element when it comes to avoiding conflict, especially if you’re running short on time. Sometimes people are more forgiving than they let on which means that by creating misunderstandings between them and another colleague enables you to divert their anger onto someone else, leaving yourself looking innocent in the process. People expect managers to take sides during arguments so if they feel like you’ve turned against them then their rage will be directed towards who they believe is standing in their way rather than engineering new ways of solving problems within your business.

Opportunities Are Created When Others Waste Them

By taking advantage of a competitor’s shortcomings you’ll be able to stay one step ahead of them for years to come. For example, if you have a rival company that has been around for longer than yours then most likely they’ve been gathering valuable information about your industry which will give them an unfair advantage when it comes to making high-risk decisions without too many consequences arising from them. If the opportunity arises where you can obtain this information (with or without their consent) then take it because otherwise whoever got hold of it first wouldn’t hesitate using it against you!

Be careful how much trust you place in others because there are those who’ll exploit opportunities that arise through no fault of their own for their own personal gain. If you give them a chance to do this then it’ll increase the chances of your business suffering as a result and before you know it they could be plotting against you with your employees by telling them about all of the secrets that even you don’t know — which will put both yourself and your company at risk!

The Art Of Awareness

It might sound like an odd thing to say but awareness is one of the most valuable skills that you can have when managing a team because it gives members an insight into what’s happening behind the scenes so they’re better prepared for whatever happens next. For example, if people are aware of how much work everyone else is doing so they know whether or not there’s enough time to complete all of their own tasks then it’ll relieve some of the pressure that they’re under which will ultimately benefit everyone.

Part of being aware is keeping an eye on what’s going on around you, even if you have no intention of intervening whenever something goes wrong because it could lead to opportunities opening up for personal development later on down the line. For example, let’s say there are two people working together in a team who are doing very well in their roles so eventually this leads them to be promoted into management positions where one becomes head of the department and the other becomes sub-manager. If ever these two managers disagree with each other over anything then there’s certainly going to be some problems arising from it but by observing how both managers behave during a heated argument then you’ll end up learning a valuable lesson that can be applied to your own circumstances.

A Warrior’s Tools For Battle

There are times where people will fight each other with words because it gives them a sense of satisfaction which is why managers should pay attention to how conflict arises between employees during their day-to-day activities. If you see them as enemies all the time then this could lead to an inability to work together as a team so by analyzing what causes arguments between individuals will help develop the necessary skills needed for avoiding future conflicts from arising within your workplace.

If there are those who continue engaging in petty disputes that have no impact on the way your business operates then it’s not to intervene, instead just listen to the arguments that they’re having and take note of how it affects everyone else. After this has occurred a sufficient number of times then you’ll be able to identify key points in their conflict which could lead to something productive being done about it.

When You Own A Sword, Everyone Else Is Your Enemy

If your business is successful enough to start outgrowing its current premises then why not take advantage of this by moving into bigger office spaces with more amenities? For example, if you own a café but are running out of room inside the building where you operate from then becoming anchor tenants in a nearby shopping mall would allow you to expand your business while giving customers more reasons to visit with additional stores opening up nearby.

By doing this you’ll be putting yourself ahead of the competition because it’ll show that your company is committed to innovation which will attract more talent to work for you, especially those who are seeking employment opportunities with companies boasting large office spaces.

By listening to people’s opinions on what failings your business could be doing then you can gain valuable information about how you should improve things for both current and potential future customers. For example, after sending out surveys asking your client base what they reasonably want from their experiences working with your company then these results could lead to changes being made within the organization such as giving discounts or free samples away to gain new clients.

Although this may not sound like very much at first but if enough profits are accrued through this type of beneficial customer service then it could be reinvested into the company in the form of new equipment that improves productivity which will result in an upward spiral.

By doing this it shows that you’re not afraid to listen to your customers and take heed of their opinions otherwise they could end up taking their business elsewhere which is counterproductive if you want repeat sales. By catering for everyone’s needs then there’ll never come a time where you don’t have enough customers, plus when they return for more services or products then they’ll probably bring along some friends with them so word of mouth can spread quickly throughout your market area.

Even though these people are currently not paying anything to work with your business, why should care about what they think? Well, it turns out that listening to your employees could result in less stress for everyone involved, especially those above them who are receiving unwarranted complaints about their work.

If this continues unchecked then it’ll lead to a greater risk of these employees losing motivation which will eventually affect your business because they’ll stop working as efficiently as before resulting in longer wait times for customers. To avoid this situation from arising within the workplace then it’s important that managers take heed of all complaints being made by people working under them so that something can be done about any problems being highlighted, whatever they may be.


By listening to what other people have got to say about how your business should operate then you’re guaranteed success through gaining information relevant to running a successful operation so don’t be afraid of taking advice from others because there’s always something to be learned.

By doing this you’ll also ensure that both your business and employees get the most out of their working lives so there’ll basically be no reason for people to want to stop working for you or never want to come back which is what every business owner wants in the end. Plus, by listening to feedback about how things could be improved upon then it shows potential new customers that you’re not only willing but actually listening and taking seriously any criticisms being made of your current policies and procedures, making them feel reassured that they made the right decision in choosing who they buy products or services from when it comes down to crunch time.

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