BSML’s Summary of Principles from:


By Sun Tzu

circa 600 BC

From the BSML Business Wisdom Series

Key Themes

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

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

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”


Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived in the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China and is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War.  He has had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and culture, both as the author of The Art of War and as a legendary historical figure.

The Art of War remains the ultimate guide to combat strategy, explaining when and how to engage opponents, in order to prevail in difficult situations. It explains how to motivate soldiers, how to leverage tactical advantages and how to win the battle of wits.

BSML’s intention in compiling this summary is to share the wisdom of this legendary strategist with our clients and prospective clients (particularly those keen on world domination), to encourage them to read the full work, and to help them use its principles to improve management practices and competitive strategy.

Please feel free to share this document with your colleagues and business partners, who have an interest in the topic.

Nick Bentley, Managing Director, BSML


  1. Background

  2. Bookstructure–the13chapters

  3. Principles

    1. Strategy

    2. Leadership

    3. Tactics

    4. Environment

    5. Innovation

    6. Intelligence
  4. Summary

1. Background

  • The Art of War is commonly considered the definitive work on military strategy and tactics of its time. It has been the most famous and influential of China’s Seven Military Classics, and for the last two and a half thousand years it has remained the most important military treatise in Asia, where even the common people know it by name
  • The text is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare
  • It has had an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, politics, business, sport and beyond
  • The book was first translated into the French language in 1772 by the Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot and a partial translation into English was attempted by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905
  • Leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong, General Vo Nguyen Giap, General Douglas MacArthur and leaders of Imperial Japan have drawn inspiration from the work
  • Its principles are taught at West Point, Sandhurst and most business schools around the world

2. Book structure – the 13 chapters

Chapter / Lionel Giles (1910)R.L. Wing (1988)Ralph D. Sawyer (1996)Chow-Hou Wee (2003)
I - Laying PlansThe CalculationsInitial EstimationsDetail Assessment and Planning (Chinese: 始計,始计)
II - Waging WarThe ChallengeWaging WarWaging War (Chinese: 作戰,作战)
III - Attack by StratagemThe Plan of AttackPlanning OffensivesStrategic Attack (Chinese: 謀攻,谋攻)
IV - Tactical DispositionsPositioningMilitary DispositionDisposition of the Army (Chinese: 軍形,军形)
V - EnergyDirectingStrategic Military PowerForces (Chinese: 兵勢,兵势)
VI - Weak Points and StrongIllusion and RealityVacuity and SubstanceWeaknesses and Strengths (Chinese: 虛實,虚实)
VII - ManoeuvringEngaging The ForceMilitary CombatMilitary Manoeuvres (Chinese: 軍爭,军争)
VIII - Variation of TacticsThe Nine VariationsNine ChangesVariations and Adaptability (Chinese: 九變,九变)
IX - The Army on the MarchMoving The ForceManoeuvring the ArmyMovement and Development of Troops (Chinese: 行軍,行军)
X - TerrainSituational PositioningConfigurations of TerrainTerrain (Chinese: 地形)
XI - The Nine SituationsThe Nine SituationsNine TerrainsThe Nine Battlegrounds (Chinese: 九地)
XII - The Attack by FireThe Fiery AttackIncendiary AttacksAttacking with Fire (Chinese: 火攻)
XIII - The Use of SpiesThe Use of IntelligenceEmploying SpiesIntelligence and Espionage (Chinese: 用間,用间)

3. Principles

For ease and translation to a business context, I have grouped the 13 chapters into 6 topics :

3.1 Strategy

3.2 Leadership

3.3 Tactics

3.4 Environment

3.5 Innovation

3.6 Intelligence

The principles associated with each topic are covered in the pages that follow

3.1 Strategy

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

3.1.1 Strategic objectives

“In war let your great objective be victory, not lengthy campaigns. If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the state will not be equal to the strain.”

“There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire rather than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

3.1.2 The 5 levers of strategy

“He who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail”

  1. The Moral Law or Culture-whether the people are in complete accord with their leader, so that they follow him regardless of their lives, and undismayed by any danger
  1. Heaven or External Conditions–the influence of seasons, night and day, cold and heat, times of day, weather
  1. Earth or Terrain – types of ground (safe or dangerous, near or far, open or closed, steep or flat, easy or hard to traverse)
  1. The Commander or Leader–his virtues or vices, including wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, strictness
  1. Method and Discipline–marshalling the army, ranks and units, rewards and punishment, logistics, supply, control of military expenditure

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

“Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.”

3.1.3 Strategic assessment

By means of the 7 considerations, I can forecast victory or defeat”

  1. Which of the two sovereigns is imbued by moral law?
  2. Which of the two generals has most ability?
  3. With whom lie the advantages derived from heaven and earth?
  4. On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
  5. Which army is stronger?
  6. On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  7. In which army is there greater constancy both in reward and punishment?


“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory and few calculations to defeat. How much more, no calculations at all!”

3.1.4 Strategy and deception

“All warfare is based on deception”

  1. When able, seem unable

  2. When active, appear inactive

  3. When near, seem far away

  4. When far, seem near

  5. Use baits to entice him

  6. If he is secure, prepare for him

  7. If he is superior in strength, avoid him

  8. If he is angry, irritate him and hope he grows arrogant

  9. If he is at ease, give him no rest

  10. If his forces are united, separate them

  11. Attack where he is unprepared

  12. Appear where you are not expected

3.1.5 Strategic rules of thumb

“If our forces are 10 to the enemy’s 1, surround him; 5 to 1, attack him; 2 to 1, divide our army in two. If equally matched, we can offer battle.

If slightly inferior, we can avoid him; if quite unequal we can flee from him”. A small force in the end will be captured by a larger force. ”

“If the general is strong, the state will be strong. If the general is weak the state will be weak.”

“There are 3 ways a ruler can bring misfortune on his army :

  1. By commanding the army to advance or retreat, being ignorant of the

fact that it cannot obey – hobbling the army

  1. By attempting to govern an army in the same way as administering a

kingdom, ignorant of the conditions that pertain in an army – causes restlessness

  1. By employing officers without discrimination and understanding the

need to adapt to circumstances – this shakes confidence”

“When the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army and flinging victory away.”

3.2 Leadership

“When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders’.”

“There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general :

(1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction;

(2) Cowardice, which leads to capture;

(3) A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;

(4) A delicacy of honour, which is sensitive to shame;

(5) Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.”

3.2.1 The 5 causes of victory

He will win who :

  1. Knows when to fight and when not to fight
  2. Knows how to handle superior and inferior forces
  3. Has the same spirit throughout all his ranks of the army
  4. Prepared, waits to take the enemy unprepared
  5. Has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign

3.2.2 The 6 calamities of bad generalship

  1. Flight – when the enemy force is 10 times the general’s force
  2. Insubordination – when officers are weak and soldiers strong
  3. Collapse – when officers are strong, but soldiers weak
  4. Ruin – when officers are angry and insubordinate, and give battle on their own account
  1. Disorganisation – when the general is weak and without authority, his orders are not clear and direct, fixed duties are not assigned, and the ranks are slovenly
  2. Rout – when the general allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank

3.2.3 The 6 ways of courting defeat

  1. Ignoring the natural formation of the countryside
  2. Failing to follow the rules of war and available information
  3. Not fighting when victory is inevitable
  4. Coveting fame and not fearing disgrace
  5. Treating soldiers with indulgence and like spoilt Children
  1. Not knowing the enemy or oneself, so victory is not certain

      Best Practice

  1. Adapting to and utilising natural conditions and terrain
  2. Rigorously applying methods and measurement
  3. Knowing when to fight, even against the sovereign’s orders
  4. Being motivated by service and protecting the country
  5. Authority, fairness, and discipline driving loyalty
  6. Know yourself and know your enemy and victory will not be in doubt

3.2.4 Sun Tzu on discipline

After writing The Art of War, Sun Tzu got an audience with the king of Wu. The king invited him to demonstrate his military skills by training the court concubines. Sun Tzu accepted the challenge.

Sun Tzu appointed the king’s two favourite concubines as commanders of the group. He then explained the commands for marching. But when the drum signals were given, most of the women burst out laughing.

Sun Tzu taught that if the orders are not clear, the general is at fault. So he repeated his explanation, but the women only laughed again.

Sun Tzu also taught that when the orders are clear, but not followed, the officers are at fault. So Sun Tzu ordered the women’s commanders beheaded.

After the two were executed and replaced, the remaining women obeyed the orders precisely. The king was too sickened by the deaths of his favourites to watch the demonstrations. But he gave Sun Tzu command of his army.

3.2.5 The business of the general

  1. To muster his host and bring them into danger, quietly and with secrecy, so his men and the enemy know neither his purpose or his plans
  2. Drive a wedge between the enemy’s front and rear
  3. Prevent co-operation between his large and small divisions
  4. Hinder the good troops from rescuing the bad, the officers from rallying their men
  1. When the enemy’s men are united, keep them in disorder
  2. When to advantage, make a forward move; when otherwise, stop still
  3. Seize something the enemy holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will
  1. Rapidity is the essence of war
  2. Take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, attack unguarded spots
  3. Foray onto fertile country to supply the army with food
  4. Carefully study the well-being of your men; do not over-tax them 12.Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength
  5. Set up one standard of courage, that all must meet
  6. Throw your soldiers into positions of no escape and they will prefer death to flight. Officers and men will put forth their uttermost strength
  1. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm, be faithful and trusted 
  2. Lead the army as if leading a single man, by the hand

3.2.6 Risk management and surprise

  1. By altering arrangements and changing plans, keep the enemy without definite knowledge
  2. By shifting camp and taking circuitous routes, prevent the enemy anticipating one’s purpose
  3. Prevent the concentration of enemy forces
  4. Enter alliances only when acquainted with the designs of neighbours
  1. Bestow rewards without regard to rule; orders without regard to previous arrangements
  2. Maintain secrecy – block frontier passes, destroy official tallies, stop the passage of all emissaries
  3. Confront soldiers with deeds; never let them know your design
  1. Place your army in deadly peril and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits and it will come out safely

  2. Be stern in council chamber, so that you control the situation
  3. If the enemy leaves a door open, rush in
  4. Seize what he holds dear, and contrive his time of arrival
  5. Accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle
  6. Exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening
  1. Emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for him to oppose you

3.3 Tactics

  1. Defence
  2. Offence
  3. Militarymethod
  4. Measurement
  5. Energy
  6. Weakpointsandstrong 7. Manoeuvre
  7. Variation

3.3.1 Defence

“The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond defeat, and then waited for the opportunity to defeat the enemy”

 “To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands”

“The general who is skilled in defence hides in the most secret recesses of earth. Thus we have the ability to protect ourselves”

 “Standing on the defensive indicates a lack of strength”

 “He wins his battles by making no mistakes”

3.3.2 Offence

“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself”

 “Attacking represents a super-abundance of strength”

“He who is skilled in attack, flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven”

“Thus the victorious strategist only seeks battle after victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory”

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease”

3.3.3 Military method and measurement

“The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success”

Military method comprises:

  1. Measurement
  2. Estimation of quantity
  3. Calculation
  4. Balancing of chances
  5. Victory

Measurement comprises:

  1. Measurement of Earth
  2. Estimation of quantity to measurement
  3. Calculation to estimation of quantity
  4. Balancing of chances to calculation
  5. Victory to balancing of chances

3.3.4 Energy

“A victorious army is as a pound’s weight placed in the scale against a single grain”

“The on-rush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent- up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep”

“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision to the releasing of a trigger”

“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men; it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers”

“The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much of individuals. Hence the ability to pick out the right men and utilise combined energy”

3.3.5 Weak points and strong

“A victorious army is as a pound’s weight placed in the scale against a single grain”

“The on-rush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent- up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep”

“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision to the releasing of a trigger”

“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men; it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers”

“The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much of individuals. Hence the ability to pick out the right men and utilise combined energy”

3.3.6 Manoeuvre

“There is nothing more difficult than tactical manoeuvring, turning the devious into the direct and misfortune into gain”

“Manoeuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous”

“We may take it that an army on the march without its baggage train is lost, without provisions is lost, without bases of supply is lost”

Key components of manoeuvre :

Distance, pace, terrain, alliances, use of local guides, troop concentration or division, rapidity and compactness, signals, impenetrability of design, timing, discipline, self possession, avoiding strength, striking like a thunderbolt, sharing plunder, pondering before making a move

 “He will conquer who has learnt the artifice of deviation”

3.3.7 Variation in Tactics

“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions”

“Do not repeat the tactics, which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances”

“The soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing”

“Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together”

3.4 Environment

  1. The 6 types of Terrain
  2. Principles for an Army on the march
  3. The 9 battlegrounds

3.4.1 The 6 types of Terrain

  1. Accessible ground (able to be freely traversed)
  2. Entangling ground (able to be abandoned, but hard to re- occupy)
  3. Temporising ground (where neither side will gain by making the first move)
  4. Narrow passes (areas of strength and advantage if well garrisoned)
  5. Precipitous heights
  6. Positions at a great distance from the enemy


  1. Accessible ground (able to be freely traversed)
  2. Entangling ground (able to be abandoned, but hard to re- occupy)
  3. Temporising ground (where neither side will gain by making the first move)
  4. Narrow passes (areas of strength and advantage if well garrisoned)
  5. Precipitous heights
  6. Positions at a great distance from the enemy
  7. Be there before the enemy; occupy raised, sunny land; guard your lines of supply
  8. If the enemy is unprepared you may win; if prepared defeat and disaster may ensue
  9. Offer bait; retreat to entice him out; split his army and attack to gain advantage
  10. Seek to occupy first and wait. Only attack passes if they are weakly defended
  11. Occupy the raised and sunny spots, or if second, retreat and entice him out
  12. Do not provoke or seek battle

3.4.2 Principles for an Army on the march

  1. Pass quickly over mountains, and keep in the neighbourhood of valleys.
  2. Camp in high places, facing the sun.
  3. Do not climb heights in order to fight.
  4. After crossing a river get far away from it.
  5. Do not meet an invader near a river, he has to cross, or fight him upstream.
  6. In crossing salt marshes, get over them quickly.
  7. In flat country, have rising ground to your right and rear, so that danger may be in front.
  1. All armies prefer high ground to low; sunny places to dark.
  2. Take care of your men and camp on high ground, and they will be free of disease.
  3. If a river is swollen wait for it to subside before crossing.
  4. Country with precipitous torrents, deep hollows, confined places, tangled thickets, quagmires, and crevasses, should be avoided and left with all possible speed. These are good places to entice the enemy into.
  5. Route out places where ambush and spies are likely to be lurking.

3.4.3 The 9 Battlegrounds


  1. Dispersive (own territory)
  2. Facile (no great distance into hostile territory)
  3. Contentious (of great importance to both sides)
  4. Open (with liberty of movement)
  5. Intersecting highways (requiring occupation as it connects 3 states)
  6. Serious (heart of hostile country with fortified cities in rear
  7. Difficult (hard to traverse)
  8. Hemmed-in (narrow paths and gorges)
  9. Desperate (safety only through fighting ones way out)

Priorities of the General

Inspire the army with unity of purpose

Ensure close connection with all parts of the army

Hurry up the rear

Be vigilant with defences Consolidate alliances

Ensure a continuous stream of supplies

Push on along the road Block any way of retreat

Proclaim the hopelessness off saving their lives

3.5.1 Innovation – attack by fire

“Attack by fire is used in 5 ways :
  1. To burn soldiers in their camp
  2. To burn stores
  3. To burn baggage trains
  4. To burn arsenals
  5. To hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy”
“There are five possible developments :
  1. When fire breaks out inside the enemy’s camp, respond at once and attack from without
  2. If there is an outbreak of fire, but the enemy’s soldiers remain quiet, bide your time and do not attack
  3. When the force of  the flames has reached its height, follow it up with an attack, if that is practicable; if not stay where you are
  4. If it is possible to make an assault with fire from without, do not wait for it to break out within, but deliver your attack at a favourable moment
  5. When you start a fire, be to windward of it. Do not attack from the leeward”

3.5.2 Innovation – attack by water

“By means of water the enemy may be intercepted, but not robbed of all his belongings”

“Those who use water as an aid to the attack, gain an accession of strength”

3.6.1 Intelligence – foreknowledge

“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

“This foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.”

“Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

“Hence the use of spies, of whom there are 5 classes :
    1. Locals pies (inhabitants of the district)
    2. Inward spies (officials of the enemy)
    3. Converted spies(enemy spies working for us)
    4. Doomed spies (given up to the enemy for the purposes of deception)
    5. Surviving spies (who bring back news from the enemy camp)”

3.6.2 Intelligence – the use of spies

“Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move.”

“Whether the object is to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, its is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, aides to camp, and door keepers and sentries of the general in command.”

“The enemy’s spies, who have come to spy on us, must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies, through whom we are able to acquire and employ local spies and inward spies.”

“Doomed spies will carry false tidings to the enemy.”

“By their information, surviving spies can be used on appointed occasions.”

4. Summary

“The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.”

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

“Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom, that has once been destroyed, can never come back again; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

“Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.”

... or put in today’s terms

  • If you want loyalty from your people, look after them, challenge them, be principled and consistent, set high standards, plan for the worst (not just the best)
  • Pick your battles, battlefields and alliances; flat seas are better than stormy
  • Know your enemy … by recruiting their best people
  • Use surprise, energy, the elements and conditions to your advantage
  • Avoid prolonged price and marketing wars, under-estimating the competition, over-optimism, ego, arrogance and avarice
  • Take a long term view; don’t bet the farm; be consistent; keep a sense of perspective, timing and balance; don’t stand still
  • Constantly gather intelligence; run the numbers; test different scenarios; think carefully before you act
  • Going broke is not a good look; it means you miscalculated something; caution and vigilance will keep you in the game
  • Strike hard, fast and decisively (like an eagle from the sky), preferably when your position is unassailable
  • But … (and there is a but), when all is said and done, in the final analysis …

some quiet persuasion, may be all you need


We work to respond to your enquiries as quickly as possible.


Tel: +64 (027) 454 9315

Office: NTT Building, Level 16, 157 Lambton Quay, Wellington