Summary and Review of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Translated by Thomas Cleary

This summary and review of the book, The Art of War, was prepared by Michael Jamal Wallace while a Management student in the College of Business at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Cover of The Art of War

Executive Summary

Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher whose teachings are based on the principles of the Taoist religion. He is the author of one of the most prominent pieces of literature during the era of the Warring States in which China entered around the first millennium B.C.E. In this work of art Sun Tzu takes a rational approach to the problem of conflict and dissects every aspect of it. He details how to overcome a conflict using specific procedures and methods. The main objectives when engaging in war, according to Tzu, are to evaluate your environment, identify your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your opponent, and develop a full proof strategy based on these assessments. He defines and calls the reader to actions such as planning sieges, effectively forming your army, using force, maneuvering your army, using espionage and fire attacks, and a host of other related behaviors. Although contradictory to the title of the book, Sun Tzu’s primary message is that the peak efficiency of knowledge and strategy come from either avoiding conflict or making it unnecessary altogether. He writes, “To overcome others’ armies without fighting is the best of skills.” In conveying this message Sun Tzu does not attempt to persuade one to back down or run away from conflict. He is instead suggesting that if one strategically assesses the situation effectively, one should be able to defeat the opponent with one’s mind, only having to exert a minimum physical effort. Other key messages Sun Tzu elaborates on include anger and greed being fundamental causes of defeat and that the actual art of war is dependant on how well one can operate outside the sphere of emotional influence on determining how and when to maneuver. Sun Tzu highlights discipline and focus as behaviors that should be exemplified at all times, especially by a military leader or general. In so many words he explains that there is little room for error in engaging in battle and one, as well as one’s army, must be disciplined and focused enough to make every adjustment necessary. While primarily based on physical warfare, Sun Tzu’s philosophies from the Art of War can be viewed from many perspectives. The book allows a read that can be understood and applied to everyday struggles. Sun Tzu’s work has and will remain as one of the key manuals to achieving success or victory in any circumstance.

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The Ten Things Managers Need to Know from The Art of War

1.            Developing and executing strategy is the key to achieving success in anything.

2.            One should aim to conquer the entire industry, not just a small portion.

3.            Espionage can prove to be advantageous when employed correctly.

4.            Avoid engaging in head to head battles.

5.            Always analyze your strengths and weaknesses and your competitors or rivals.

6.            Pick your battles. Determine whether it is viable to engage in war with someone before attacking.

7.            Assess the environmental conditions and trends before attempting to enter into an industry.

8.            Give clear cut definition to your organizational structure, but avoid allowing its’ true formation to be discovered by competitors.

9.            Make sure all plans for action and maneuvering are well thought out before employing them.

10.            Always give your opponent a chance to join forces with you after they have been defeated.

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Full Summary of The Art of War

Ch 1: Strategic Assessments

In this chapter Master Sun and his commentators discuss the importance of assessing one’s environment. When engaging in war it is dire to each side to examine the external conditions, such as the environment, and one’s internal strengths and weaknesses. I related this to the business world because those same assessments need to be made before developing a strategy. They basically comprise a SWOT analysis, which sizes up a firm’s internal strengths and weaknesses and its external opportunities and threats against each other. Master Sun states the five most important aspects to assess are “the way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.”(pg. 41) From a business perspective, these five elements can be viewed as the gap or niche in which the business is attempting to enter, the external conditions of the industry, what the possible market share is, what the managerial processes that should be employed to effectively run the business are, and what the guidelines to operation of it are. Once these assessments have been made, Master Sun directs you to, “structure your forces accordingly, to supplement extraordinary tactics. Forces are to be structured strategically based on what is advantageous.” (pg.48)

Ch. 2: Doing Battle

This chapter actually details the necessary tactics and moves to employ once involved in battle. I related this to a start up finally entering into a market. The most important point Master Sun attempts to get across here is that battle should not be a long and exhausting process. If all assessments were made correctly, by either or both parties, the actual fighting period should determine a victor within a relatively short time frame. From a business perspective, once you have concluded your SWOT analysis, have determined that the venture is actually viable, and have developed a strategy, it should not take forever and a day for your market presence to begin to be acknowledged by your competitors. True, it is not reasonable to think that as soon as one enters the market one’s company will be an immediate success. But, a predefined timeline should exist that detail how long it will take the company to begin to realize profits. This timeline should be executed to the T. Master Sun states that when you do battle for a long time it will dull your forces and exhaust your resources. This also applies to the business world.

Ch. 3: Planning a Siege

This chapter entails the necessary steps to not only compete, but to takeover. Master Sun writes, “Therefore those who win every battle are not really skillful— those who render others armies helpless without fighting are the best of all.” What this says is that your aim shouldn’t be to just win every head to head battles or competitions with other small or similar sized businesses. Your aim should be to render the entire industry helpless and to become recognized as the dominator. You should not focus on battling frivolously with those who are in the same market position as you. Go after the industry leaders tactfully by developing plans to foil their strategies and eventually conquer their market share. Word to the wise though: This must be done skillfully and impeccably or it could lead to your destruction. One of Master Sun’s commentators, Zhang Yu, states, “A skillful martialist ruins plans, spoils relations, cuts of supplies, or blocks the way, and hence can overcome people without fighting.” (pg. 75)

Ch. 4: Formation

This chapter concerns the formation of an army, or in an entrepreneur’s case, the organization. One’s structure should never be totally visible to those outside of it. There should never be a point where organizational structure can be analyzed correctly. Hiding formation should be considered just as important as developing the strategy itself. Master Sun states, “In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents.” The business structure should be viewed as a predator stalking and evaluating its prey until it is time to attack. It camouflages and wants to remain unseen until that perfect moment arrives in which it reveals itself. In order to successfully achieve this, one must know his/her business structure in and out, thereby not allowing any chance of the misleading perception to become a reality. Also, you must not allow yourself to get too drawn into your evaluations of competitors because they may be incorporating the same methods of deception.

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Ch. 5: Force

This chapter describes one aspect that can lead to domination, force. One commentator defines force as a shift in accumulated energy or momentum. This is a goal that should be top priority in executing your business plan and strategy. Capitalize of hat other companies have done in the market in regards to advertising and building customer loyalty. When the right moment approaches, forcefully put them out of business and establish yourself as the new industry leader. Consumers will flock to your business once you are recognized as the industry superior. There are many methods to forcefully takeover a market. You must find the one that is tailored specifically to your organization and its competencies. As Master Sun states, “Making the armies able to take on opponents without being defeated is a matter of unorthodox and orthodox methods.”

Ch. 6: Emptiness and Fullness

This chapter identifies recognizing who are the powerful and who are the weak as another important aspect in warfare. Du Mu writes, “Militarists avoid the full and strike the empty, so they first have to recognize emptiness and fullness in others and themselves.” The content of this chapter can be considered common sense and natural instincts. You must know hat your strengths and weaknesses are. You must know what your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses are. You must only pursue those situations in which you feel you have a feasible chance of succeeding in. For example, it would not be wise for a mom and pop grocery store to go head to head with a retail giant like Wal-Mart. In order to find out who are those within your competitive reach and those that aren’t Master Sun instructs, “Assess them to find out their plans, both the successful ones and the failures. Incite them to action in order to find out the patterns of their movement and rest.” (pg. 115)

Ch. 7: Armed Struggle

In this chapter Master Sun conceptualizes armed struggle as a situation to steer clear from. He defines struggle as the pursuit of an advantage and states that fighting with people face to face over advantages is the hardest thing in the world. This reference back to Ch. 2, “Doing Battle”, in which the main point is not to engage in frivolous head to head battles. In competing with a local business, do not take it head on. To gain a complete advantage over it, think outside of the box and use resource strengths and distinctive capabilities to out-gain it in every aspect. Assess whether to use direct or indirect approaches and heavy or light tactics and then proceed to attack. This will lead to your best chance of victory. Master Sun states, “Act after having made assessments. The one who first knows the measures of far and near wins— this is the rule of armed struggle.”

Ch. 8: Adaptations

This chapter’s content can be considered the most important content within the entire book. It elaborates on a topic we all should not only be familiar with, but should have had to apply at some point in our lifetimes, adaption. Zhang Yu, yet another one of Master Sun’s commentators, defines adaption as “….not clinging to fixed methods, but changing appropriately according to events, acting as it is suitable.” (pg. 131) In a business climate, adaption is another key success factory. You must be able to change with the industry conditions in order to survive as an organization. Plans for these changes should already be established as they should be included in the initial strategy. Business owners and executives should have full knowledge of the industry they are operating in and how fickle it is. As Master Sun writes, “Therefore generals who know all possible adaptations to take advantage of the ground know how to use military forces. If generals do not know how to adapt advantageously, even if they know the lay of the land, they cannot take advantage of it.”

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Ch. 9: Maneuvering Armies

This chapter fixates on the concept that setting objectives is only half the battle. You must have detailed plans of action in place in order to execute those objectives. It describes different tactics and procedures to put an opponent at a disadvantage and how to elude situations that puts you and your troops at a disadvantage. From a business perspective, you can view this chapter as tips on how to run your organization. According to the chapter, your employees must be disciplined, aware of the environment, and always willing to make adaptations in order to be effective. You as a business owner or leader must analyze every possible route that can be taken with each decision and determine the most advantageous one to send your workers in the direction of. You must set guidelines on how to overcome deficits and establish manuals on what behaviors to exhibit. “If the army is unsettled, it means the general is not taken seriously.” (pg. 145)

Ch. 10: Terrain

This is a relatively short chapter. It uses terrain to describe routes that can easily be taken and ones that may require some expertise to get through. Either way, you should be fully prepared for whatever a particular route may bring because assessments of it should have already been made. In making corporate decisions, attempt to foresee every possible consequence and determine which would produce the most beneficial outcome. You can also relate this chapter to how easy it is to enter a market. Some markets are wide open for any potential business to enter; some are already saturated and require an efficient and effective business plan to succeed in. Master Sun states, “Some terrain is easily passable, in some you get hung up, some makes for a standoff, some is narrow, some is steep, some is wide open.” (pg. 151)

Ch. 11: Nine Grounds

This chapter describes nine types of competitive or battlefield grounds. These include: grounds of dissolution(where local interests fight among themselves on their own territory), light ground(when you enter others land but not deeply), grounds of contention(land that would be advantageous to you if you got it and to opponents if they got it), trafficked grounds(land where you and others can come and go), intersecting grounds(land that is surrounded on three sides by competitors and would give the first to get it access to all the people on it), heavy grounds(when you enter deeply into others land), bad grounds(when you have to travel through mountain forests, steep marshes, or any route difficult to travel), and surrounded ground(narrow and circuitous land). Most of these different types of lands can be transitioned into market conditions and how easy it is for a potential new entrance. They also deal with being first movers and hard-to-match resource holders.

Ch. 12: Fire Attack

This chapter basically gives you five ways to attack using fire. These include: burning people, burning supplies, burning equipment, burning storehouses, and burning weapons. I could not see a correlation between this chapter and the corporate world unless one wants to go to jail for murder or vandalism.

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Ch. 13: Espionage

This chapter entails the benefits of having information from within your competitors’ infrastructure. It describes five kinds of spies: local spies, inside spies, reverse spies, dead spies, and living spies. The most important message to grasp from this chapter though, is the usefulness of specific information about your competitor in molding your own strategy and business model. Inside intelligence allows you to anticipate your competitor’s next move and attempt to stay steps ahead of them. Of course the use of espionage is based on to what degree you feel it is unethical. But, if employed it can definitely lead to a significant competitive advantage.

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The Video Lounge

This link leads to a series of 10 videos that gives graphic detail about the creation of “The Art of War” and an in depth explanation of its concepts.


Personal Insights

Why I think: 

·      With business conditions today, what the author wrote is – or is no longer true – because:

Even though this book is based on war, its’ message can definitely be transitioned into a business perspective as I have done with my summary. There are many ways to interpret Master Sun’s teaching. It all depends on who is reading the book. But no matter how you interpret it, the fact still remains that the tactics described within the book can be used in developing and executing an effective business strategy and plan. No matter how business conditions change, Tzu’s advice and tips remain concrete and hold some degree of truth to them and will always be practical.

·      If I were the author of the book, I would have done these three things differently:

1.            Restructured the order of the chapters as to present them in steps.

2.            Eliminated some of the commentators due to their interpretations being completely out of the box.

3.      Combined some of the chapters so that the book doesn’t read with redundancy.

·      Reading this book made me think differently about the topic in these ways:

1.      It gave me a band new light on the importance of developing a strategy specific to every objective I have.

2.      It made me think differently on how to treat my opponents once I have defeated them.

3.      It also enlightened me on how important it is to evaluated and assess each aspect of a situation.

·      I’ll apply what I’ve learned in this book in my career by:

1.            Developing a strategy for EVERYTHING I am trying to achieve.

2.            Assessing the business market thoroughly before attempting to enter it.

3.      Applying some of the leadership tactics I have learned towards the operation of my organization.

·      Here is a sampling of what others have said about the book and its author:

“What others (scholarly and magazine reviews – along with on-line reviews – not simply reviews off the back of the book) have said about the book and its author?”

The many reviews I have discovered and read all give “The Art of War” the right to be a bestseller. Scholars, authors, literary experts, editors, etc. give their stamp of approval to the book describing it as, “an exhilarating experience” and calling its concepts some of the most profound in relation to strategy. They especially allude to the translated and commentated version stating that it is a “luminous translations” and provides a much clearer understanding of Sun Tzu’s deeper purpose for the book.


The Art of War. Retrieved 10/21/2010 from

Victory Over War: Reviews and Comments.  Retrieved 10/21/2010 from

Zakas, Nicholas C. (03/01/09). Book Review: The Art of War. Retrieved 10/21/2010 from


Contact Info: To contact the author of this “Summary and Review of The Art of War,” please email



David C. Wyld ( is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. His blog, Wyld About Business, can be viewed at              


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1 Comment
  1. Posted October 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Sun Tzu’s teachings are way way ahead of his times.

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