The Art of War is certainly the foundation of all modern concepts of strategy, but is it not written for the purpose of using strategy “against enemies.” Sun Tzu’s work focuses in advancing your competitive position, that is, moving toward your goals, in the least costly way possible. The role “enemies” play in this strategy is essential but largely misunderstood. I will explain it just briefly here.
The process of strategic positioning is largely psychological as I explain in another recent post. We all “rank” others in our various mental hierarchies. We do this so that we can make decisions. Strategy is a process of affecting the decisions process of others. You want to develop positions that other people will support instead of oppose. To choose to support you, people must have a choice.
This is where “enemies” come in. The Chinese character translated as “enemies” means “fellow noblemen.” In other words, they are the people most like you, that is, the people to whom you are compared. These people are essential in the struggle to win recognition for your abilities.
For example, you cannot claim “I am the fastest runner,” without creating the questions, “faster than whom?” To rise in other people’s mental hierarchies, we must be compared to someone. This “someone” doesn’t even have to be other people. People compare us to who we were yesterday. They also develop expectations regarding who will can be tomorrow. This later is what we call judging our “potential.”
So Sun Tzu doesn’t teach us to strategize “against” our enemies. As Pogo once famously declared, “We have met the enemy and he us us!”
In the process of improving our positions, others play an important role. The people to whom we are compared challenge us. They can show us by example how to become better just as we can show others, by our example, how to become better. We can learn from our own mistakes, but we can also learn from the mistakes of others, especially those who people compare to us. Though there is no escaping from making our own mistakes, learning from the mistakes of others is less painful.