To Win, Understand Your Enemy

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Becky Sheetz-Runkle

How well any business understands its adversaries is a determining factor in whether it wins or loses. We can learn some valuable lessons about how to defeat the competition from Sun Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius who lived from 544 to 496 BC, during tumultuous times in China. In his famous work, The Art of War, Sun Tzu advises: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Sun Tzu’s direction on understanding the enemy is foundational to every chapter of The Art of War. Let’s take a look at his most essential wisdom on how to develop and apply this knowledge. (Sun Tzu’s words are shown in italics).

Create Conditions for Victory
If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory.

Your readiness for business battle is only half of the story. While you may be able to keep from being defeated by adopting a defensive strategy that focuses on an insular understanding of your organization, you won’t be able to break through to success unless you thoroughly understand your adversary’s vulnerabilities and assets. Launching an engagement on an adversary who is strongly positioned could be disastrous for you.

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

Being aware of the condition of the competitor’s vulnerability is the idea here. You must fully understand the adversary so that you will be able to see those openings. Sun Tzu continues:

Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

How can you guard yourself against defeat and take advantage of the opportunities the enemy offers? Let’s explore what Sun Tzu says about how to map weaknesses in competitors and take decisive action.

Identify Adversaries
While Sun Tzu lived in a time where the warring entities were well identified, your battlefield is probably more nebulous. You may be in a landscape rife with mergers and acquisitions, or where one big player is crushing smaller forces. You may see new players entering your market through a revolving door, and others clandestinely rising to prominence. Identification of adversaries includes the competitors you know, and the ones you don’t know.

It’s a mistake to determine that you have no competitors because no one has your exact technology or processes, or because you’ve not done your due diligence to spot other players. Some small businesses get started and even operate for some time believing they are the only ones who can perform in a way that will satisfy the customer. It’s never true. Even if you are doing something no one has ever done before, there are alternatives, even if they’re less sophisticated and more costly. You must fully understand those alternatives.

Create Opportunities to Defeat the Enemy
In sparring, when you’re battling someone skilled, it’s not enough to stand in front of your opponent, toe-to-toe, and throw your fastest, most accurate punch or kick and expect it to land. Simple one-off blows are easily detected and deflected. That’s why really good practitioners know how to use feints, counters, and multiple attacks to create opportunities and land strikes. That was a difficult lesson for me to learn in martial arts. My mentor, Uche Anusionwu, on the other hand, was quite good at it. He’d feint, I’d counter, and he’d land a blow and take me down. He would remind me yet again, usually very matter-of-factly, to “create the opening.”

It’s all very much the same in business, especially if you’re up against a stronger adversary. You can’t stand toe-to-toe, launch an attack, and expect it to land. You have to create opportunities. As he’s reacting to a punch combination to the head, he’s vulnerable to a knee strike or a kick in the ribs. As he blocks and turns to move out of the way of a punch, he may give you an opportunity to slip the blocking arm and slide in with a choke. The idea is to create the opening and then quickly seize the opportunity. If your opponent is skilled, he won’t make the same mistake twice. And he’ll be less likely to make a future mistake that would give you an opportunity.

Taking advantage of an opening that is created by external factors is just as useful. One day, Uche and I were working on knife defense at the end of class, while the others were changing and preparing to leave. As the defender, I stood with my back to the wall, as the attacker would plunge in with the blade. Uche pulled the training knife to cut, holding it out in front, between us. Our instructor, Sensei Randy Hutchins, was standing off the mat, not really watching us. He called Uche’s name to get his attention. Uche turned his head to look at Sensei. As his attention was diverted, without hesitation, I moved in, locked his wrist, threw him to the mat, and took the knife. Sensei chuckled and congratulated me. There are no rules when the bad guy has a knife.

Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack him where he has taken no precautions.¹

Netflix is an excellent example of a business finding—even creating—the opening. Movie rental giant Blockbuster may have known its strengths, but it was no match for the emerging enemy, Netflix, and the innovator’s ability to satisfy a market hungry for entertainment and convenience.

Encourage the Enemy’s Mistakes
If you have a deep understanding of your adversary, you can play upon his weaknesses and encourage him to fall. In this passage, Sun Tzu says to exploit an adversary’s ill temper:

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

Attack Weakness, Avoid Strength
The idea of attacking weakness and avoiding strength is central to Sun Tzu, as it must be for small businesses. Large businesses, too, would be well suited to heed this direction, but for small businesses it’s mandatory.

You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy’s weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.

There are two important elements here. Attack him where he is weak, never where he is strong, and do so with speed.

When a general, unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one, and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be rout.

You should never set the few out against the many or use weak against strong. As for leading with picked soldiers, Huang calls them “the spearhead.”2 Think of it as having all the wood behind one arrowhead so that an attack can be well coordinated, with the strongest players well positioned to maximize their potential.

Measure Competitors
Carefully compare the opposing army with your own so that you may know where strength is abundant and where it’s deficient. To reach conclusions, you’ll need indicators of strength and weakness. Determine what those markers are.

When the soldiers stand leaning on their spears, they are faint from want of food. If those who are sent to draw water begin by drinking themselves, the army is suffering from thirst.

Just as you must care for and keep the best people, you can tell a great deal about the competition from reading signs. What are your competitors lacking? Where are their frustrations? Are they experiencing significant turnover? Have their travel budgets been cut or increased? What about other spending categories? Follow your competitors’ conference and trade show presence and observe their advertising spends and social media activity. These public sources can tell you where your competitors are focusing dollars, which can be an indicator of problem or plenty for them.

Be wary of adversaries who are close and quiet. Watch their movements:
When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position.

Take nothing at face value. Study your adversary’s actions more than his words:
Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance. Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat.

Time Your Attacks
A key piece of measuring your adversaries and attacking their weakness is the timing of attacks:

Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.

Agility is a primary advantage of small businesses, when contrasted with the competition. If you understand your advantages and your enemy, you’ll be able to time your attacks for maximum benefit.

Remember the Formula
The Sun Tzu commentator Du Mu succinctly explains Sun Tzu’s formula:
“Evade their strength, stalk their openings, and then issue a decisive attach for victory.” 3

¹ Gerald A. Michaelson and Steven Michaelson, The Art of War for Managers: 5 Strategic Rules (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010).
2,3 J.H. Huang, Sun-Tzu: The Art of War?The New Translation (New York: William Morrow, 1993).

© 2014 Becky Sheetz-Runkle. All rights reserved. Adapted from The Art of War for Small Business: Defeat the Competition and Dominate the Market with the Masterful Strategies of Sun Tzu. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

You can learn additional winning business strategies at these AMA seminars:

About the Author(s)

Becky Sheetz-Runkle is a strategic marketer, speaker, and martial artist. She is the author of Sun Tzu for Women: The Art of War for Small Business (AMACOM, 2014) from which this article was adapted.