I am amazed at how many business people falsely believe that “Business is War”, and how many young managers and MBA students see Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” as being the holy bible for waging business in the same way that one would wage war. I know that Sun Tzu made some very pithy and relevant statements like “Know yourself, know your enemy, win the war”, but how this became an earth shattering business truism is questionable, except maybe for those who look for easy answers to the meaning of business life in books like “The One Minute Manager” and “Who Moved My Cheese”.

Author: FrankWilliams; via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst there are some obvious similarities between the business world and that of the military, these are not enough to ensure ultimate success if one was to run a business in the same way that one would conduct a war. For a start, if business really was war, then it would be easy for senior officers from the armed forces to transition into the business world when they retire from military service, which it rarely is.
I have many friends from different branches of the military who had to go back to square one to try to adjust to the business world, despite being at the rank of at least Colonel, Commander or Air Commodore, and who were used to leading large numbers of troops.

War and business are based on winning and beating the opposition and there is nothing wrong with that analogy, but it really doesn’t go much further.

Here are some reasons why …

1. War is based on death.

The power of a military in war is not just based on whether its people are prepared to die for their country, but also on how good they are at making their opposition die for theirs. Business is not based on the body count that you can inflict on your competition, and is never a matter of life and death no matter how many times one uses that analogy to motivate a sales force.

2. War will have dramatic negative impacts on communities, both economically and physically, on both sides of the conflict.

The sacrifices that are made by non-combatants in wars have generally been higher than that made by the military personnel involved. Businesses are there to benefit the communities that they are in from both an economic and a human perspective, and will help to grow and nourish a community. Contrast this with the destructive impact that warring forces have on any community that they come in contact with.

3. In war, your enemy is to be hated and slaughtered at every chance and there is never any thought that there could be advantages to working with your enemy to benefit both sides.

Contrast this with the business world where serious competitors will share technologies in ways that enhance their abilities to succeed, and ultimately deliver choices to the marketplace in which they compete strenuously. One example being that SAP traditionally has always been one of the biggest resellers of the Oracle database. The more successful that SAP is, the more money it has to pay in royalties to its arch rival Oracle. The net result is that both companies benefit and so do their customers.

Author: Vladislav Bezrukov; via Wikimedia Commons

Autthor: Peter Kaminski; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Military management is based on command and control in strict hierarchies and blind obedience.

An order is an order and must be carried out as given, or offenders can face strict punishment, court marshal and even death.
Great businesses thrive on dissension, discussion, creativity and innovation. The “lower ranks” are encouraged to question things and to drive change, and are rewarded for this.

5. In war one of the greatest atrocities that can be committed by any member of the armed forces is to change sides.

In business the movement of personnel from one company to another is part of the lifeblood, maturity and richness of any industry. Some movement is considered advantageous for personal growth and development, and it helps that one can show a reasonable number of different employers throughout ones work history, and to be able to show how each of them helped to create a more rounded and valuable individual.

6. Historically, the army officer corps was made up from the ruling classes, usually the second oldest son of a wealthy family who had little financial future as his elder brother was due to inherit both the title and the property, and therefore leaving him only a choice between the military and the clergy. This meant that wars were generally orchestrated by the in-bred offspring of cousins who had married each other, and times haven’t changed all that much, as officers are rarely built from the ground up, and the lowest ranks are generally made up with those that have little choice. Businesses on the other hand are much more Darwinian. The most successful business people are those who are smart, have learned how to live and succeed within ever changing environments, can manage resources, are visionary and have shown that they have the ability to lead and motivate others.

The problem is that the “Business is War” attitude is not only invalid on its own, it also drives all the wrong behaviour.
It rewards autocrats who believe that they are always right, it stifles innovation by limiting dissent, it sees people as dispensable headcounts and it encourages empire building, hoarding of information and viewing everyone outside the team, division and company as adversaries. Customers are seen as needing to be conquered rather than as business partners, and competition to be crushed rather than being seen as business opportunities.

I have no question that conversely “War is Business” but the belief that “Business is War” is only for the simple minded, and they need to get a wider reading list than Sun Tzu, Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson if they want to succeed in today’s business world.

Author: Carlos Latuff; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Andrew Weller says:

    Couldn’t help remember the Sun Micro Oz FY kick off in 199x at Leura 😉

    Nice piece all the same.


  2. leshayman says:

    Andrew, I think of the 1990 Sun OZ kickoff often and remember that it was a lot of fun and a real Shaun McC inspirational intro.
    I still believe that “Business is War” can be a way to fire up a sales force at something like a kick-off. I just don’t believe that it is the way to run a company or to use as a basis for business relationships.

  3. About time someone started calling b/s on this. Despite all the evidence that cooperation and collaboration work, there’s still a large number (possibly the majority) of managers who bring their military / sporting fantasies to work.

    • leshayman says:

      Martin … it is definitely hard to get some managers to differentiate between the one-liners that suggest a link between business and sport/military, and that may be inspirational to a bunch of salesmen at a rah-rah sales meeting with the realities of leading, motivating and being a valuable part of a broad ecosystem over an extended time period.

  4. Tim Collins says:

    Sun Tzsu was an amateur – I would strongly suggest Machiavelli “The Prince” to be a more valid “grown up” treatise on intrigue and subterfuge, It has more validity to the cut and thrust of internal corporate life, PLUS its a lot thinner 🙂

  5. leshayman says:

    Tim, I love “The Prince” as the best primer for anyone wanting a political (rather than a business)career, along the lines of “… keep your friends close and your enemies closer …”, but never let them get behind you. 🙂

    • Tim Collins says:

      Hi Les,
      I was a little off piste but working for a major multinational i found in truth in order to continue conduct business I first had to preserve my corporate self (dunno SAP never worked there), for sure within the organisation, business IS politics and i know you know this to be fact (I saw YOU!). The clever wog was very succinct on how to survive. I quit “the game” to allow my creativity to focus on winning business in my own enterprise – infinitely more satisfying..

  6. There’s a certain irony in here around the Oracle/SAP comparison. I’m assuming the author is taking a benign view of Larry Ellison’s avowed intent to destroy SAP…

  7. leshayman says:

    Dennis … the comment was more about SAP providing Larry with a steady income while using Larry’s products to build it’s own business.
    Btw, Larry has also vowed to destroy, amongst others, Microsoft, Hasso Plattner in yacht racing, sexual harassment lawyers and manufacturers of cheap kimonos 🙂

  8. leshayman says:

    Tim… OK I admit that “The Prince” is also a good primer for surviving corporate politics. 🙂

  9. Tim Collins says:

    Nice subject Les, thanks.
    War? perhaps that’s because all the love is spent on the prospect and customer?.
    From my personal experience over more decades than i can believe, for the most part I have had a strong sense of camaraderie for my competitors.
    My customers have always been the object of more goodwill then the actual transaction would dictate – its been my primary sense of joy in business to under promise and over deliver. And I have no admiration whatsoever for those that behave differently,

  10. Thomas Huynh says:

    This is certainly cooperation even among competition but there are times when resources are limited and market share is finite. Business is war because like Sun Tzu’s aim to save lives, a good CEO’s aim is to save livelihoods (jobs) from foreign competition. We all know this well.

    Thomas Huynh, founder, a website dedicated to Sun Tzu’s Art of War

    • Tim Collins says:

      Competition spurs good companies to improve their product and services thus increasing the overall market. I challenge the assertion that markets are finite and therefore have to be fought over. Good managers and good people create extraordinary things because their focus is on the right target, moving onward and upward – not scrapping like soi dogs over a bone.

    • leshayman says:

      Thomas, I do not accept the idea that “market share” is finite. Clever innovation and great people can not only take market share from competition but can grow markets to new users and wider penetration ,,, look at the impact of Apple on the mobile phone market as just one example.
      As you say, a good CEO’s role is to protect his people… but, a great CEO’s role is to also create the opportunities to grow.

  11. AJ says:

    Hi Les,
    It was refreshing to see a different take on some of the management cult books. I myself was planning to read “Art of War” but have now dropped that idea. Also your candid admission of sales treating rival
    companies as enemies for motivation was fun to read. SAP being one of the largest resellers of Oracle database was one fact that caught me by surprise and I read it twice to confirm that I had got it right.

  12. leshayman says:

    AJ, it’s worth reading Art of War anyway.
    Just don’t accept that it is a direct correlation to the way to run a business.

  13. Murali says:

    What is “A” book you recommend to run a good business

  14. leshayman says:

    That’s the point … there is no “One” book, which is why I dislike books like the 1-Minute Manager. There is no one true bible, and many management books have some “thruths” in them. You have to distill from each/all of them what has meaning for you, and build your own path. That is also the beauty of being a manager.

    • Tim Collins says:

      Personally I wouldn’t have ST on my bookshelf, or at least not amongst the essentials. If your primary business focus is to destroy your competition your vision is fatally flawed, and your business life would have very few genuine rewards.

      Great game of rugby today, with the French absolutely on fire, Still, credit and congratulations to the AB’s, especially in overcoming the worlds most boring National Anthem dirge vs the worlds most uplifting and finest. France also showed how to respond to the haka – Vive!

  15. leshayman says:

    The difference in the teams in the RWC final today is that France played to win and the ABs played not to lose.

    PS: I love “God defend NZ” especially in Maori (though I do accept that the Marseillaise is more uplifting). This morning at the Pub in Bordeaux where we went to watch the game I was pleased to sing both … loudly.

    • Tim Collins says:

      Maori is acceptable especially since i don’t know the language – in English i find it quite depressing. On the vocal platform I can make any Kiwi of a certain vintage “tear up” with a lyrically accurate Pokarekare ana (learnt at the age of 4 BTW)

      It was a great game of rugby and certainly the AB’s deserved to win the overall campaign – if NOT the final contest… Weepu’s boot was a French gift- So whadda me and da boyz gonna do next weekend? Back to long lunches, bike rides and golf I guess –

  16. gurprrietsiingh says:

    As always, an insightful post. I do believe that the business world can learn a lot from the armed forces when it comes to strategic thinking, planning, reviewing and managing people. And the other key lesson businesses can learn from war, is that in the end, nobody wins.

    • leshayman says:

      Gurprriet, I agree wholeheartedly with you about the fact that no-one wins in war, which is why I am lukewarm about your learnings from the armed forces, as they are all based on win/lose, apart from how to manage a supply chain. Les

  17. Sandeep says:

    Without a doubt , no single book or theory can suffice for business.However , i believe you have been a bit too harsh on Sun Tzu. There is a lot of emphasis on ” to win without fighting” and ” avoiding conflict” and not ” having a long drawn battle”. The tips on achieving the same are commendable. The principles are applicable in day to day and surely in business.

    For someone who knows how to get ” production ” done and is not introduced to strategy or tactics ….. i think ” The Art of War” is the best book. To say that ” The art of war ” is about military realities only is a huge oversimplification.

    It is unfair to compare this with “The One minute manager” or ” Who moved my cheese” which have some applicability only in business.. and cannot be stated to be classics that have survived hundreds of years….

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