Sun Tzu: Warrior Philosopher

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” 

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military strategist, a general, and a philosopher. He lived in the 5th century B.C.E. at a time in the history of China known as the Warring States period. His skills as a military strategist earned him many victories in battle, giving him high status and power, so what did this victorious warrior mean when he said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”?

The Art of War

To pass on his wisdom as a successful warrior and leader, Sun Tzu wrote a book entitled The Art of War. Now considered a classic, he details his strategies and philosophies on defeating an opponent within its pages, and his words continue to inspire soldiers, politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, and anyone else in any kind competitive environment to this day. According to Colin Powell, former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Art of War is required reading in the U.S. Military. He says, “Sun Tzu has been studied for hundreds of years. He continues to give inspiration… so every American soldier in the army knows of his works. We require our soldiers to read it.”

Positioning was considered of key importance to Sun Tzu in terms of military strategy and while we may not be waging war in everyday business or working life, the worlds of business, politics and sport can be considered a battleground of wills, making his teachings as relevant today in the modern world as they were over 2500 years ago. In his book, Sun Tzu states that, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” He believed that an army must be positioned not only according to the physical environment and conditions on the ground, but also according to the subjective beliefs of the opponent and the potential changes this may create in the environment. In other words, he got into the minds of his opponents and he planned ahead for every eventuality before battle commenced, ensuring that he could respond quickly to changing conditions and deal with situations as they arose rather than floundering when things did not go to “plan”.

Prepared for Success

In everyday life, we all know that things do not always go to plan and that what works on paper does not always work out in practice. Sun Tzu’s strategy was to “win first” by making “many calculations”, thereby putting himself in a position to remain one step ahead of his opponent at every turn of events. He knew that planning in a controlled environment was not enough to secure victory in a real-world environment that could take many twists and turns away from the “plan” so he prepared for success by being prepared to adapt quickly and appropriately to changes. In effect, by knowing his enemy as well as himself, he limited the potential for an unexpected turn of events to leave him vulnerable.  

Sun Tzu said, “It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, be able to evade them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.” In today’s competitive world, these wise words serve to remind us that success is all down to positioning. Before going into “battle”, you need to know where you stand, and then plans and decisions made can be based on that standing. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” How prepared for success are you?