“Business is war.” So says Kevin O’Leary, billionaire businessman and regular participant in the wildly successful U.S. TV program, Shark Tank.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu (pronounced “SUN Zuh”) wrote a classic military text, The Art of War. Recently, various authors have praised it as being quite applicable to business.

One such author is a marketing multi-millionaire, Dan Lok, who subtitled his adaptation, Strategies for Winning in Business Today.

 
 

Sixty and Me readers seem unlikely to be quite as fierce in commerce as Kevin O’Leary or Sun Tzu, but there are some lessons in The Art of War that you could translate into business success.

Know Your Enemy and Know the Battleground

Information is key in business and war. Some facts you obtain through observation and open sources. Some you buy. Some you get from spies.

Having that information handy, you then need to choose battlegrounds favorable to your capabilities, and compete with weaker opponents. Timing may become critical, too, as these factors will change.

You want to match your strengths against your competitors’ weaknesses, and avoid competing against well-established products or services. Information helps you make these selections in your planning.

Dan Lok writes, “No one plans to fail, they just fail to plan.”

Use Deception

Just as information is of value, so can be disinformation. You will want to shield your plans from the prying eyes of your competitors. You may want them to believe what isn’t true. As Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth advised, “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent beneath it.”

Looking good helps, also. Appearances count. Cosmetics can convince. “Optics” has become a buzz-word.

Use Honesty

While using deception in shielding your plans from competitors, you want to maintain a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, especially with respect to allies, employees, customers and civil authorities. If you want to be a successful leader, you need to be respected and trusted.

Be Unpredictable

Your friends and followers will appreciate your constancy and predictability, but your competitors will take advantage of knowing your plans. It’s wise to use your creativity to make rapid, clever alterations from time to time.

Avoid Head-to-Head Conflict

Find your competition’s weaknesses, and focus your efforts there. Better yet, find unoccupied, open opportunities and niches to move into. Once you make a move, do it decisively. Half-measures often fail.

Crush the competition, if present, and then hold the market tenaciously, giving your customers excellent value for their money.

Follow up your victory. Don’t become complacent. Don’t let the competition recover.

Rewards and Punishments

In business and in war, to keep morale strong, your allies and associates need to benefit from your victories. Michael LeBoeuf called this The Greatest Management Principle in the World. It boils down to rewarding good behavior and punishing poor choices.

Treating your troops fairly and generously will make them likely to behave loyally. Similarly, reward your allies.

In some situations, punishments may be needed. Do so reluctantly, however, as those punished will resent it, even as observers will learn from it. Remember that even though Sun’s beheadings were effective for shaping up the Concubine Army, we cannot recommend them.

Do not do your “enemy” a small harm. This breeds resentment. When you strike, strike decisively. Try to make them incapable of retaliating.

Problems Are Opportunities

The same factors that hamper you may impede your competition or create need in potential customers. Overcoming “barriers to entry” puts you in position to succeed, strengthening you and your business. “Every knock is a boost,” someone other than Confucius or Sun Tzu has noted.

Be Adaptable

As conditions change, your tactics must also. Major changes may require you to alter your strategies. Presumably, your goals will remain constant.

Others have said it, if Sun Tzu did not, “The best plans last only until the battle begins.” Be prepared to change.

In Conclusion

Business competition is not war, but is sometimes close to it. We can certainly profit by taking the advice written two millennia ago by a Chinese sage: choose our battles; advance with speed, deception and determination; and reward and punish frequently and appropriately.

Would you ever start your own business? To what degree do you think business is like war? Which tactics might you use or have you used? Which strategy would you refuse to employ? Please join the discussion.

Douglas Winslow CooperDouglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D. is a former Harvard science professor. He still publishes and helps others write and publish their books, via http://WriteYourBookWithMe.com. Douglas’ life’s central theme has been a half-century romance with his wife Tina Su Cooper, now quadriplegic for over a decade due to multiple sclerosis, receiving 24/7 nursing care at home, as discussed here at their website.

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