Ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu is perhaps the earliest known business strategist. He is credited with authoring The Art of War, one of the best known and influential Chinese books on military strategy. His writings have had a significant impact of Chinese and Asian history and culture.
Popular not just among military strategists, The Art of War has also become increasingly popular among political and business leaders. Despite its title, one of the main tenants of the book is that confrontation (and war) is to be avoided as much and as long as possible because of the potential for catastrophic loss. According to Sun Tzu, war is only justifiable when all possible alternatives have been completely exhausted. Only when you are threatened by an enemy with military action should you resort to armed conflict. And even then, a direct clash of arms is to avoided.
Here’s a good summary of some of SunTzu’s stretegems that comes from Ralph D. Sawyer’s 1994 translated version, Sun Tzu: The Art of War.
Warfare is the Tao of deception. Thus although you are capable, display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When your objective is nearby, make it appear distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby. Display profits to entice him. Create disorder (in their forces) and take them. If they are substantial, prepare for them; if they are strong, avoid them. If they are angry, perturb them; be deferential to foster their arrogance. If they are rested, force them to exert themselves. If they are united, cause them to be separated. Attack where they are unprepared. Go forth where they will not expect it. These are the ways military strategists are victorious. They cannot be spoken of in advance. Sun Tzu’s principles rest on the strategy of keeping the enemy off-balance. The aim is to get in a situation where you can use your forces to the maximum effect again a confused and locally inferior force. Go where your opponent does not expect it and attack where they are not prepared. You must not attack until the situation exists where you have the advantage.
In summary, Sun Tzu’s strategy can be summarized in three bold statements:
The one who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious.
The one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.
Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.
Here’s the takeaway: In military as well as business settings, confrontation with your opponent must be always avoided until one is certain that a favorable balance of power exists and that all alternatives have been avoided.