What Sun Tzu's Art of War Can Teach us About Work

The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military text that deals with the aspects of war and preparation for warfare. Due to its philosophical stance regarding conflict, it has been adapted beyond the military. It has influenced the fields of investment banking, courtroom law and economics. It is also used as a conflict resolution guide (no, not to beat your opponent over the head because its heavy, what’s wrong with you?), as Sun Tzu considered war a necessary evil but that should be avoided at all costs if possible. Although a military tactical and strategic text it is rich with lessons and observations regarding leadership, timing and conflict avoidance.  Here are a few experts from the book that can assist you in the workplace (put away the sword none of the expert below need that).

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.

Time tested and proven, this states that it is of great significance to choose your battles. In an interpersonal or professional conflict you must weigh the pros and cons of engaging or retreating. In a real world sense it would be as if you and a co-worker were vying for the same promotion. Is the friction that is arising as a result ultimately worth the promotion or is going to damage your reputation and rapport with other people in your team?



He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy, who is not, will be victorious.

Timing is everything and know when to strike (don’t actually hit anyone that was just rhetorical). This can be applied more specifically when you are asking for leave from work, a raise or a promotion. Gauge the atmosphere before you act, if there is an increased workload or deadlines to be met this might be an inopportune time to ask for leave.

Quickness is the essence of the war.

Quick conflict resolution is optimal. This is due to the fact that frictions become grudges and grudges, vendettas. If you have a long-running problem with a co-worker it’s better to approach it head on and amend any animosity than allowing the situation to escalate. I know fisticuffs in the parking lot would defuse the situation quicker than talking but you can’t use the jail warden as a reference.

Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

Stay motivated, ambitious and avoid complacency. As you achieve more you will be rewarded more. Even if you’re not rewarded for your efforts at your current position, opportunity may come from a different source.

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

Or as it’s more colloquially known: “All show and no go.” Having a plan is extremely important for achieving your goals and professional achievements. Without planning, there is no follow through and without follow through, planning is just rhetoric. One is absolutely necessary for the other to function and be effective. Think of it as the connection between a dog being walked on a leash. Sure you can take the leash off the dog and he will walk himself, but he’ll most probably run away.

To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.

This has nothing to do with body-swapping and mind-switching sci-fi scenarios. You must understand how your enemy thinks and acts. If the enemy is predictable then they can easily be defeated. Now let’s replace ‘enemy’ with ‘goal’. Gather as much information as you can about how to achieve your professional goals. If you can find someone that actually achieved the same goal ask for their guidance.  

Have you read the Art of War and managed  to apply it your professional or personal life successfully? Let us know your experiences in the comment section below.




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