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The Art of War, a 2500 years old business guide

How can The Art of War, one of the 7 Chinese classics on warfare, influence business even today?
When one thinks about a book that can still influence people after 2500 years, few examples come to mind. Such books present topics and provide explanations which can be valid even in present, often with a completely different context. These classics are so valuable for their hindsight that many businessmen and politicians will read them. Actually, many do that more than once to find inspiration during hard times.

A classic on warfare, from Cao Cao to Mao Zedong

Some of these came from China.
Among them, Sun Zi (or Sun Tzu)’s The Art of War is one of the most known. Sun Zi was, according to Chinese tradition, a master of warfare who, after his successes during the Spring and Autumn period, decided to set his core teachings in a book. That book would become one of the classics on warfare for the entire Chinese history. It was often mentioned and discussed in biographies and historiography.


700 years later, during the Three Kingdoms period, generals and rulers discussed military tactics by referencing to The Art of War and Sun Zi. The ruler of the northern kingdom, Cao Cao, even made his own commentary. Cao Cao was extremely cunning, and managed an incredible political rise based on his military successes. He used to lay out very smart plans and tricks to win his fights, and only few could rival him.
Those teachings reached the modern era without losing value.
Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Douglas MacArthur all used to read the Art of War.
This short book influenced their approach to leading and fighting, both physically and mentally.

Managing an army in relation to the country

A very interesting point about the Art of War is its focus on the context. This is more important than the specific battle formation or method to raise troops’ morale. Actually, Sun Zi does not speak at all about these topics. Instead, he goes in depth about planning ahead, thinking about serving the country and the people, instead of one’s own glory. He reminds to think about the expenses of an army. A good leader needs to know how to manage supplies and money, as well as the spirit of the team. His teachings direct the reader into avoiding an expensive victory almost as much as a defeat. Sun Zi also discusses the relationship of the commander with the government – something that reminds, in large corporations, of the difficult communication work between a manager and the board, or between the CEO and his investors, especially in startups.

The Art of War… for business

In fact, although the Art of War is a rather short text, it is extremely versatile and many of its teachings can be applied to business and even communication. The importance of leadership, delegating, discipline and rules is felt throughout the entire book. It is interesting that, today, most of the management training discuss the very same concepts as must-have for managers and leaders.

The Art of War explains that a good team will be always better than excellent individuals
Sun Zi puts a lot of focus on the leader, who should be autonomous and take the right decisions even against the will of a distant superior who hasn’t a clear vision of the situation.

The Art of War, self-awareness and teamworking

One of the most famous sentences in the Art of War expresses that “He who knows himself and the enemy, will win all his battles“. The importance given to knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and the struggle to improve his soft skills is among the most important topics in the Art of War.
Indeed, understanding the context we are living or working in and using it at our own advantage is as important in warfare as in anything else. Communication can be very influenced by what you imply through your behavior and tone. It can lead people to understand exactly the opposite of what you say. Sun Zi used to say that it is not clever to rely on the best soldiers. It is much more smart to manage well even the worst ones. That’s because a good team will always be stronger than few, even if excellent, individuals.
Delegating and knowing how to lead people is key to grow any business.
Nobody can reach the top by sheer willpower. But, as a team, nothing is impossible.

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