The Competitive Ethics of Sun Tzuís The Art of War

Sun Tzuís The Art of War is broadly read within the business world as the basic primer for competitive strategy, which is easily adapted to marketing. In the original Chinese, the original work is an almost mathematical analysis of how competitive systems work. Though a basic translation puts its principles in military terms, its original formulas can be directly translated line by line from military terminology to business marketing terms. When we do this, some fascinating ethical insights emerge.

The most common misconception among people who have not studied Sun Tzuís work is that is its basic competitive philosophy is Machiavellian, devoid of ethical considerations in advancing its principles of success in competitive arenas. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, Sun Tzu teaches that ethical behavior is the foundation for success in competition.

Sun Tzuís ethics are pragmatic rather than idealistic. He focuses on the fact that direct conflict is inherently costly. Those who naturally react to competitive situations by wanting to engage in battles and defeat their opponents are doomed to defeat, even if they consistently win their battles. This as true in marketing battles as it is in military ones. He advances the art of war as a strategy for replacing the artless, destructive conflicts that define most competitive battles, including those that too often take place among business competitors.

His analysis is that victorious conflict is so inherently costly that it is never worthwhile. We can win a market by spending too much money, but we cannot make a profit doing so. He says specifically, ďA general that fights a hundred battles and wins a hundred battles in not a great general. The great general is one who finds a way to win without fighting a single battle.Ē The Art of War teaches us to stop defining successful in terms of winning conflicts or in terms of beating opponents. Sun Tzu redefines success very simply as advancing our position, improving our market share, if you will, while avoiding costly direct conflicts. By using strategy, as oppose to brute force, we can advance our position in such a way that people do not want to attack us and, ideally want to join us. In warfare and marketing, this means finding openings where we can go around the competitors rather than battling them directly.

Ethical considerations are at the foundation of his strategic principles. Of the five factors that are the basis for strategy, the first and foremost of is philosophy. Sun Tzu taught that people could not be united to succeed in any endeavor unless they shared a common philosophy that gives their struggle a greater meaning. A shared philosophy unites and focuses an organization. In business, our term for his idea of philosophy is a company mission.

Every successful organization has a corporate mission that gives them a purpose greater than simply making money. All businesses are trying to improve the world in one-way or another, whether they recognize it or not. Even the most basic economic activities-feeding people, clothing them, giving them shelter-are worthy and important goals, but only if you value people. Sun Tzu valued people because he saw that our every success depends upon them. In human society, we cannot be successful in a vacuum. A well-defined higher mission is the basis for any successful marketing campaign.

In Sun Tzu system, not only must we have worthy goals to be successful, but our methods, the last of his five factors, must be honorable as well. As a matter of fact, the only limitation he puts on methods is that they must be consistent with our philosophy. If our methods run contrary to our mission, we cannot be successful. Again, this is not an idealistic principle but a pragmatic one. From a marketing point of view, we cannot sell our higher mission if our methods are clearly inconsistent with those ideals. Do you ever get spam e-mail messages from companies offering to put a stop to spam e-mail? How successful do you think those companies are going to be?

The final and perhaps most critical of his five keys factors with an ethical dimension is the organizationís leader. Sun Tzu teaches that leaders must be honest. In the end, people will only follow you into war or in business if they can trust you. Sun Tzu teaches that the essence of war is controlling peopleís perceptions. For Sun Tzu, strategy is a long-term, systematic approach to success. While dishonesty can offer some types of temporary advantages, it always works against us in the long run, whether we realize it our not.

For Sun Tzu, the strategic process of advancing our position is opportunistic, but he defines opportunism as a form of mutual dependence. He teaches that we donít create our opportunities because they are part of the larger environment (heaven and earth, the last two of his five factors), which we cannot control. Sun Tzu teaches that we depend on others to create opportunities for us. Every marketplace has unfulfilled needs, just as every business has weaknesses. Both are opportunities for improving our position, and quite often those opportunities are disguised as problems. We do not recognize these opportunities simply because we are not trained to see them in the challenges that face us.

To be successful in marketing, we must learn how to leverage the opportunities that others give us. We can only do this if we build our businesses on a solid foundation of ethics. Without that solid ethical foundation, we cannot build long-term success from taking advantage of opportunities because people eventually find us out. In todayís world, our business practices are more transparent than ever.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu offers a wealth of detailed information about continuously improving our position in a way that unites people and brings them together. Though the book takes only a few hours to read, understanding how these principles work is difficult because they are often counter intuitive. This is why we developed The Warrior Class, our free (to our book owners) on-line training site at that offers slide shows, lessons, and self-scoring tests to make it easy to master Sun Tzuís strategic principles.

SecurityMetrics for PCI Compliance, QSA, IDS, Penetration Testing, Forensics, and Vulnerability Assessment


Many of the 1000+ articles on Frugal Fun and Frugal Marketing have been gathered into magazines. If you'd like to read more great content on these topics, please click on the name of the magazine you'd like to visit.

Ethics Articles - Down to Business Magazine - Frugal & Fashionable Living Magazine
Global Travel Review - Global Arts Review - Peace & Politics Magazine
Frugal Marketing Tips - Frugal Fun Tips - Principled Profit
Why The Business Ethics Pledge Campaign
Clean and Green Marketing

Our Privacy Policy

Click here to order Shel's books on cost-effective and ethical marketing

This site is brought to you by Shel Horowitz,
Director of Accurate Writing & More--bringing you marketing,
writing, and career assistance since 1981.
(413) 586-2388

For information on reprinting articles from this site, click here.

You're also invited to visit our sister sites:
(ethical, cooperative, and profitable business success)
(How to have more fun and spend a lot less money)
(marketing, writing, and career services)

Social networking icons by

Disclosures of Material Connections:

Site copyright © 2000-2011 by Shel Horowitz