The great business thinker Peter Drucker noted that his book Managing for Results, published in 1964, was the “first book ever on what we now call strategy”. For once, the venerable sage of business might have been over-stating his intellectual credentials. Strategy is as old as humanity. But its most coherent lineage lies in the military world. The book commonly taken as the strategic bible is a military one: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
The authorship of The Art of War remains, perhaps understandably, clouded in mystery. It may have been written by Sun Wu, a military general who was alive around 500 BC. His book is reputed to have led to a meeting between Sun Wu and King Ho-lü of Wu. Sun Wu, not having a flip chart available, argued his case for military discipline by decapitating two of the King’s concubines. The book’s actual title is Sun Tzu Ping Fa which can be literally translated as “The military method of venerable Mr. Sun”.
Military examples and imagery have played an important role in the development of management thinking. Even now, military role models — whether they are Colin Powell or Norman Schwarzkopf — are keenly seized upon by executives. The military, with its elements of strategy and leadership, is alluring and the link between the military and business worlds has existed since time immemorial. Books as diverse as Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War (1908), BH Liddell-Hart’s Strategy (1967) and Miyamoto Mushashi’s A Book of Five Rings (1974) have explored the link.
Generally, the attraction of the military analogy is that it is clear who your enemy is. When your enemy is clear, the world appears clearer if you are a military general or a CEO. The Art of War is usually interpreted in such terms, as an aggressive counterpoint to the confusion of mere theory. In fact, The Art of War is more sophisticated than that. Why destroy when you can win by stealth and cunning? “A sovereign should not start a war out of anger, nor should a general give battle out of rage. For while anger can revert to happiness and rage to delight, a nation that has been destroyed cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life,” writes Sun Tzu. “To subdue the enemy’s forces without fighting is the summit of skill. The best approach is to attack the other side’s strategy; next best is to attack his alliances; next best is to attack his soldiers; the worst is to attack cities.”
Sun Tzu also has sound advice on knowing your markets. “Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits…but must be obtained from people who know the enemy situation.”
Elsewhere, Sun Tzu lapses into Confucian analogies which would appear to be anathema to hard headed modern executives. Often, however, they appear to find them reassuring. “For the shape of an army is like that of water,” says Sun Tzu. “The shape of water is to avoid heights and flow towards low places; the shape of the army is to avoid strength and to strike at weakness. Water flows in accordance with the ground; an army achieves victory in accordance with the enemy.”
But, The Art of War is best known as the origin of the concept of strategy, one that has been through a great many re-interpretations in the intervening 2500 years. Here, there is no room for sentiment or distraction: “Deploy forces to defend the strategic points; exercise vigilance in preparation, do not be indolent. Deeply investigate the true situation, secretly await their laxity. Wait until they leave their strongholds, then seize what they love.” It is plain and simple, but brutal, a lot like warfare.
The simplicity of the strategy-as-warfare metaphor is alluring. But many modern-day strategists question its implications. For example, Renée Mauborgne, co-author of the strategy blockbuster Blue Ocean Strategy offers an alternative perspective. “The essence of business strategy can be traced to military strategy. That’s why traditionally the field of strategy talked about headquarters rather than head office. In terrain and war there’s only so much land that exists. Fundamentally that explains why business strategy – including competitive strategy – has been predominantly based on how you divide up an existing pie. It’s about relative power. It’s a zero sum game because you cannot multiply the size of land available,” she says.
“The question is: why has the field of business strategy sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly taken this assumption to be true? While strategy in war may be limited to dividing up existing non-changeable land masses, if there is one the world has taught us over the last 100 years it is that in the realm of business the new market spaces that can be created are infinite. What you see if you look historically is that real gains came when people created an entirely new area – a whole new market space. You can create a win:win game. You can create new land. Just think of the number of industries that exist today that did not exist even thirty years prior. Scientifically we know the same amount of chemical compounds that exist has not changed over time. But look at what you had in the beginning – just dinosaurs. And today by creatively combining them in numerous new ways we have … Starbucks. What we can buy today in a Seven Eleven store beats what a king like Louis XIV had. The possibilities are endless.”
Indeed they are, but having Sun Tzu in your pocket is still attractive. It is the nuclear option for strategy, destructive rather than creative, but undeniably powerful.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Pax Liborum, 2009
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Oxford University Press, 2008
This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about strategy by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).