13 Lessons from Sun Tzu’s Art of War

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  • June 5, 2017


My son and I like to watch history documentaries, and I wanted to tell you about one we watched just the other day, about Sun Tzu and his famous book called The Art of War.

The Importance of Sun Tzu

Written 2,400 years ago, The Art of War is amazing because the lessons it imparts still ring so true. While these lessons are usually studied during times of war, over the past half century or so, they have entered modern life, especially in business. In addition, teachings from Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Sun Tzu in ancient China (who wrote the Tao Te Ching), and Miyamoto Musashi, a Samurai warrior (who wrote the The Book of Five Rings), have been applied in modern life.

These teachings have even become a part of pop culture. Many fans of Star Wars (yours truly included) say the teachings of Yoda are a blend between Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu. My own interest in Sun Tzu’s teachings was first piqued when I saw the movie Wall Street in high school. Corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) quotes Sun Tzu by saying to his new protege Bud Fox, “I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” Later in the movie, Fox impresses Gekko with a Sun Tzu quote, “If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not, split and reevaluate.”

Whether you are just curious about Sun Tzu’s teachings because you have heard a quote or you think there is sage advice from a military genius from 2,400 years ago that you might be able to apply in your career or life, I encourage you to read the book. To get you started, I have listed my favorite quotes and what they mean to me. In full disclosure, there are a lot of Sun Tzu’s teachings that either feel out of date, too war-like or too focused on trickery. Although I think it’s important to know aspects of human nature, I don’t see the need to reference those teachings here and don’t think they are applicable to a values-driven way of life. Although Sun Tzu very much lived by a code of honor, war is primarily a zero-sum game. In business, I subscribe to the abundance mindset, which means there is plenty to go around if you take a win-win mindset.

13 of Sun Tzu’s Most Famous Quotes and Teachings

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

When thinking about execution, I usually break things down into three levels: goals, strategies and tasks.

First, you need to know your goal. Where are you headed? This might be learning to play an instrument or making our company No. 1 in its chosen field.

Second, you come up with the strategies that will help fulfill the goal. These should be bigger-picture items. For example, find a great teacher would be a strategy versus a task, because it might take 10 different tasks to actually sign up a great teacher.

Third, create the tasks, or tactics. I see this as the “battle plans” to allow you to successfully execute on your strategies. Ultimately, Sun Tzu was a big fan of creating detailed and very thoughtful plans on how to achieve his goals. I think this is the same in life and business even as plans change.

The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.

Much of Sun Tzu’s advice has to do with planning. There are many quotes and pieces of advice that have to do with coming up with strategies and tactics well before any execution happens. The moral of the story is to spend a lot of time planning, so you can prepare for whatever comes your way once you start to execute.

Never venture, never win!

On the flip side of planning is the idea that at some point, you have to take some risk and not get stuck in feelings of fear and analysis paralysis. I think the tipping point is different for everyone, but at some point, you need to stop planning and start doing. There is always time to adapt and re-think the strategies and tactics if the market signals are not what you expected them to be.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

One of our secondary values at Learning House is self-awareness. I think it is absolutely critical in business and in life to “know thyself.” What are your strengths and weaknesses? Going a level deeper, what are your deep-seated fears and passions?

Equally as important, I think it’s critical in business to understand the competitive landscape. What is the competition offering that is better than what you have in the market?

I would put a third leg on this stool: know your customers. Study them and truly understand what customers’ needs and wants are and then build products and services around these.

The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally.

I think it’s easy to understand this quote from the perspective of soldiers using the terrain to their advantage in battle, especially when it was mostly hand-to-hand combat 2,400 years ago. However, I think we can apply this lesson to the modern age. For example, how often do we complain about not having the right resources or being outspent by our competition. In the short term especially, take what is given to you and make the best of it.

There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

Sun Tzu also pointed out the same observation with what he calls the five primary colors (I thought there were three, but I assume he is adding black and white) and the five cardinal tastes. I particularly love this piece of advice because so often in business, we lack imagination and complain about how few resources we have. This quote reminds me of another quote by Bruce Lee, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think the main thrust of both of these quotes is we don’t need all sorts of resources that we think we need to be successful. Take what you have, bring your creativity and thinking mind to the equation, and watch the ingenuity unfold.

The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.

Often you will hear that “timing is everything.” Although I believe having a quality strategy is important, I also think that being able to recognize the moment to strike and execute various aspects of your strategy is a very important skill. I also think this is a lot easier said than done. I can only imagine the unconscious factors that go into determining when a falcon should swoop down.

Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

Have you ever played the board game Risk? The simple fact is that as you accumulate more resources, the more opportunities you get. I think it’s important to note that a business needs to push itself to stay nimble and young at heart — or as Jeff Bezos says, have a Day 1 mentality. You don’t see Amazon complaining about its vast resources as it marches toward a vision of selling consumers anything they could ever need.

If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

In short, focus is important in order to succeed. I think about this concept almost every single day as our business has now multiplied to five business units. I justify this in my head in saying that we are servicing the same client (university partner) and mostly using the same set of capabilities (e.g., enrollment management, marketing, instructional design), but accessing a new market (e.g., international students). Nonetheless, I think so many of the great technology businesses of today known as FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) focused on doing one thing really well, especially at the beginning.

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.

Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha and one of the most famous investors of all time, is often quoted as saying “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” I think this is a lot easier said than done, but during the 2008 financial crisis, Buffett took some massive positions in the banks as their stock prices were plummeting. In hindsight, it seemed like an easy decision, but there was a lot of fear in society and the markets. He knew things were overblown, and his level-headedness allowed him to make several great investments.

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

Much of management literature today talks about how to motivate the “ranks,” as Sun Tzu put it. Learning House devotes a lot of energy to understanding and implementing a leadership practice called Total Motivation (ToMo), which is the idea of maximizing individual employee motivation through various best practices. The authors of ToMo discovered, through empirical research, that “why people work determines how they work.” It appears that even 2,400 years ago, having an animated and motivated army or workforce was a key ingredient to success on the battlefield.

There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.

I am not making a political statement here, but I think the simple fact is that conflict over an extended period of time is a losing formula for success.

If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.

I want to end with a Sun Tzu quote that sounds very similar to another quote by Friedrich Nietzsche that I read daily: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Understanding your true purpose and connecting this with your pursuits is a formula to become unstoppable. There is a lot of suffering in pursuit of anything great. Seeing the bigger picture of why you want to endure that suffering allows you to tolerate a whole lot of pain.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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