Competition and Enemies


Competition, it's pervasive, it's the human condition. Do you consider yourself a competitive person? Have you ever sought to gain something, anything, that another is seeking to gain at the same time? If so, you were competing. When you were a child, did you try to get the attention of your parents, friends, and teachers? Have you ever participated in a sport? Do you find yourself selling your ideas or products to those you meet? Each of these situations is a competition. Every day, you face dozens, even hundreds, of competitive events. When you negotiate for lower prices, argue with credit card companies, convince colleagues to support your ideas, debate your friends about politics - you are competing. Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is really a text about ways to bring about change we desire by creating circumstances that do not create conflict. It is a book about getting what we want (and we all want something) without fighting.

Even when you're alone, you face competition. When you reach for a piece of cake and that little voice inside your head says "don't eat it" you're competing. When the alarm goes off and part of you wants to get up while another part of you wants to go back to sleep, you're competing. The more common word for these situations is "conflict." However, the Sun Tzu doesn't use the word conflict as you and I do. For him, conflict means fighting. Unfortunately, many people view competition as fighting. In reality conflict is a tool, it's one way to handle competition, but not the only way. For Sun Tzu, fighting is not considered the mark of a good strategist. Sun Tzu's strategy is the art and science of winning without fighting, it's the skill of achieving our goals without conflict. To win by fighting can is a failure in strategy. This is why The Science of Strategy Institute doesn't talk about "beating" opponents. The focus is on advancing your position with small, unstoppable, victories every day.

The moment we take action to achieve a goal, no matter how subdued we may approach it, we will eventually encounter people with a different opinion, goal, or idea. Not everyone wants to walk the same path as you. There is almost nothing we can accomplish in this world without the aid of others. When you attempt to enlist others to help achieve your goals you inevitably find competition (or it finds you). Whether you are competing with yourself or others, your success depends upon your skills in competition. You and I must learn to be competitive. You have needs and wants. You have ideas. You have products to sell. And when you step on the path toward achievement you will encounter others with opposing ideas, products, and needs.

The word "compete" comes from the Latin competere, which means "to come together, agree" and later, "strive together." This definition supports Sun Tzu's concept of competition. It is finding a way to agree, to join together, and work together for a common reason. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged states that competition is "the act or action of seeking to gain what another is seeking to gain at the same time and usually under or as if under fair or equitable rules and circumstances."

The real competition we face every day is that of transferring our beliefs, ideas, and goals to others. Competition is any attempt to develop shared philosophies and goals with people who disagree. Any time we try to change people’s mind, we are competing. Competition can be traced back to a difference of opinion, ideals, values, goals, philosophies, or whatever you wish to call it. It may appear you are competing with the person, when you are actually competing with their view of the world. It’s what Stephen Covey called a paradigm.


Sun Tzu's, The Art of War is about facing the battles and conflicts in our lives that prevent us from leading a life of significance. Like a game of chess or football, there are situations in our lives that cannot be resolved through compromise. We all face non-negotiable competition. We can either learn to accept limitations or we can triumph over them.

If you don't have enemies, you don't need strategy. As a consultant, educator, and former professor, I have had many discussions with clients and students about applying The Art of War in daily life. The most common resistance I get from people is they have any enemies. They tell me Sun Tzu is fine for big businesses, power negotiators, sports teams, and the military but not for them. They don't fight wars and they don't have enemies. They say, "I work in an office building with colleagues, so I don't have enemies." Oh, sure, they have Bob, down the hall, with whom they have an occasional argument. But no enemies. They tell me about their "unreasonable" boss. But they have no enemies. I hear all about the ridiculous demands from marketing. But they have no enemies.

Just who is the enemy and how do we identify them? The most important thing for new strategists is the concept of the enemy. Is it the person that wants to take your job? Is it the company that is trying to take over yours? Perhaps it's the mugger in a dark alley. Maybe, just maybe, you don't have any enemies. Is that even possible? After all, if you are a kind, loving, and generous person, why should you have enemies? But, if you think about it, you will realize that enmity isn't about your behavior but your position. Because of his position, even the Dalai Lama has enemies.

The only way you could exist with no enemies would be for everyone you meet to have the same beliefs, desires, and dreams as you. They would also have like the path you have chosen to achieve those dreams, want you as their leader, and trust that now is the time to achieve that vision. Under these conditions, there would be no conflict, no war, and no enemies.

Let's take a simple example. Your philosophy might be - dinner with the family tonight should be at a restaurant. Using your strategic powers, you get your spouse to adopt the same philosophy. All is well, right? Not so fast, with this victory, you advance your position and choose a new philosophy - you should eat at Denny's. Once again you persuade your spouse to have the same goal. Now, all is good. Not really. You have now advanced your position once again and your new philosophy is that you should drive. If you win that, you have to choose the time to go, how long to stay, when to leave, what to eat, and so on. Winning advances your position and leaves you facing the next advance. Like a chess player, you have to look many moves ahead. This is why at SOSI we say winning is achieving small, continuous victories, everyday.

Have you figured out who, or what, the enemy is yet? In an email exchange with bestselling author and strategy expert, Gary Gagliardi last November (2008), he stated: "In its most abstract form, the “enemy” is the philosophy that necessarily conflicts with your own philosophy."

When you argue, battle, or fight the enemy, you are really dealing with a difference of thought. Do you really have a philosophy? Yes, but here are some other terms that might suit the conversation better within different contexts: philosophy, idea, ideals, values, mission, goals, moral authority, vision, or purpose. Whatever word you choose, for Sun Tzu, it simply means whatever brings the people into agreement and gives them a higher shared purpose with the leader such that they will fight and die without fear of danger.

The Science of Strategy Institute has broken philosophy down into four levels, each more powerful than the last. The four levels, from the least powerful to the most powerful are:

  1. Money (economics)
  2. Professional (improve our value)
  3. Emotional (improve the world for those we love)
  4. Spiritual (improve the world for everyone)

The most basic level of philosophy is the need for physical survival. Basic economic needs must be met in some way for a person or organization to survive. Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, if this one isn't satisfied, it's hard to gain support for higher-level philosophies. On the next higher level, a professional mission develops your reputation in the world. This reputation earns the credibility to develop partnerships and allies. Emotional missions are built on a genuine caring for others. They are founded on the value of personal relationships. These philosophies seek to make the world a better place for those we love. Spiritual philosophies are based on ultimate truths and eternal values. Those with spiritual philosophies seek to make the world better for all people everywhere forever. Spiritual philosophies such as religion, patriotism, and many other "-isims" drive people to fight to the death. They are the hardest to change and the most enduring and powerful.

We can work together with people when there is agreement at any level of our philosophies. However, the higher the agreement, the more powerful we become. The United States was founded on the vision of Liberty. Unfortunately, this philosophy is changing to an entirely economic philosophy. If you examine the decline of the American philosophy you will find we have moved from the philosophy of Liberty to the emotional philosophy of what makes people feel good (the 1960s), to the philosophy of professional growth (the (1980s - 19990s), and now to a purely economic philosophy (the 21st Century). Currently, the only thing holding the country together is a combined desire for a strong economy. We cannot go any lower without fracturing into conflict.

In Latin, an enemy is someone who is not your friend. The dictionary tells us the enemy is one that is trying to injure, overthrow, or cause the failure of a person, idea, or thing to which he is opposed. Sun Tzu goes deeper and sees the enemy as the opposing philosophy (idea, etc) not the other person. The other person is simply the person that holds the opposing viewpoint. You're not out to vanquish that person, but to build a shared purpose. Fighting is undesirable because it's always costly. In war, lives are lost. In the boardroom, careers are lost. In our personal lives, relationships are destroyed.

The true enemy is a difference in philosophy, not another person. In practice, philosophies don't fight, people do. We must contend with the entity that espouses a particular philosophy. However, if we can focus on the true enemy, the difference in philosophy, we can often win without fighting. It is possible to join together under a common philosophy and preserve the relationship. The art and science of Sun Tzu's strategy is building a position so powerful that fighting is either unnecessary or pointless.

When philosophies collide and the resolution is non-negotiable, war is inevitable. When our view of the world is different and conflicting with someone else's, we become "enemies." But remember the enemy is the conflicting view, not the person. When we choose to walk a certain path it's because it leads to a desired destination. Two people can walk the same path with different destinations without conflict (we do it on the highway everyday). In the same way, two people can choose the same destination but different paths without conflict (for example, you and your colleagues take different roads to go to work).

Another reason for conflict arises when the paths of different people cross and obstruct one another. According to eCompetitors, the average Global 1000 company competes in 52 lines of business, IBM competes in more lines of business than any other company at 626, while HP, post their acquisition of EDS, competes in 332 lines of business, ultimately, their match-Up report shows IBM & HP compete head-to-head in 177 lines of business. ( January, 2009) Therefore, HP and IBM must compete against each other in 177 areas. They compete because they are going after the same thing at the same time. Philosophically, IBM believes their servers are better than HP's and HP believes theirs is better than IBM's.

These conflicting philosophies can be related to where we are (ground), when we do things (climate), how we work together to do things and solve a problem (methods), as well as who is making the decisions (leadership). If any one of these are philosophically opposed, conflict is more likely. IBM and HP compete because they are attempting to win the same customers (ground) at the same time (climate) with the same solution (philosophy). Their real "enemy" is the philosophy of the customer. If IBM can get the customer to agree that IBM servers are the best solution, IBM will win. IBM can do this by appealing to economics (better value), professionalism (you will be more valuable to the market with IBM servers), emotional (????????????????????????), or spiritual (you will never be fired for buying Big Blue).

Differing philosophies in areas not related to advancing a position shouldn't lead to conflict. That doesn't mean we will like each other, just that we see no reason to go to war over it. If you like football and I like hockey, it's not likely we will fight each other over our differences. On the other hand, if you want to watch a football game at a sports bar and I want to watch the hockey game, there is a potential for conflict. Why? What's the difference? In the second scenario, we are battling over a place and timing. I advance my idea of hockey by turning the TV to a hockey game right now. When I do that, it stops you from advancing your position.

In some situations, the "enemy" seems clear, but be careful about your analysis. You don't want to fight the wrong war. Here's an example, you decide to apply for a new job. You arrive for your final interview and it's you against him. Obviously, the enemy is the other candidate, right? Not so fast. Remember, the real enemy is an opposing philosophy (idea, etc), not the person. So who, or what, is the enemy? Part of the "enemy" is the difference in philosophy between you and the other candidate. You believe (your philosophy) you are the better candidate and he believes (his philosophy) that he is the better candidate. It's this difference in philosophy in the mind of the hiring manager that you must defeat, not the person. Don't forget there is another party in this game; the hiring manager. The worst "enemy" in the room might be the philosophy of the hiring manager who truly believes that he must hire only one candidate, even if both are exceptionally qualified. You now have two potential battles to choose from, the philosophy of the other candidate (he's better than you vs. you're better than him) or the philosophy of the hiring manager (I can only hire one person no matter how qualified both candidates are). You can see why we are always talking about "picking your battles." Your position, at that moment, will be more suited to win one of these battles than the other. It's important you choose the right one.

In using Sun Tzu's Rules, the biggest win is finding a shared goal. Goals can overlap like lines on a Venn diagram. They don't have to match perfectly, they just need to overlap in the areas that are meaningful for all sides to create a win without fighting. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean both sides will become barbeque buddies, but they can work together for a combined future.

We must challenge our assumptions. Assumptions are at the base of our philosophies that hold the path and destination together. In the job interview example, we are saying to ourselves, "In order to have this job, I must beat the other candidate because only one person can be hired." What comes after the "because" is the philosophy that is holding us back and creates the competition. If we can prove this assumption wrong, or make it wrong through our actions, there will be no conflict.

Let's return to the question, "Is it possible to have no enemies?" What if nobody is impeding your goals? What if nobody challenges your ideas? Are you then enemy free? Remember, it's a difference in philosophy, ideals, values, goals, vision, whatever you want to call it, that determines who your "enemy" is. As a single person, when the path forks, you must choose left or right. You cannot walk both paths at the same time. Whenever there are mutually exclusive paths or destinations, competition will arise. If you choose the destination of good health, you cannot also choose the path of eating at McDonalds. The path must match the destination.

Let's look at some examples. Have you ever thought to yourself, "I should give up smoking (or drinking or chocolate, etc)? The path of smoking does not match the destination of good health. Have you ever thought about doing something versus not doing something? Do you have habits you would like to create or break? If situations like these are true for you, you have an enemy. It's YOU. As individuals, we often have conflicting goals, ideas, and values.

Even if your philosophy is to have no philosophy, that's still a philosophy. If you feel the right thing to do is simply to accept what people in power force upon you, that's still a philosophy. In fact, you are likely to end up in conflict with those who don't believe the same.

By the way, if you don't like the word "enemy," feel free to choose another word. Perhaps you like "challenger, competitor, rival, adversary" or "opponent." If you're the eternal optimist, simply call them your future ally.

In summary, we all have enemies and we need to understand what that means. Sometimes those enemies are manifest in the beliefs of others and sometimes they are manifest in our own mind. Sun Tzu's strategy is the art and science of improving our ability to conquer these enemies by improving our position over time. The ultimate strategist is one who can do this without fighting by building a position so powerful others join in or come to the realization that fighting is useless because they can't possibly win.

Competitive Arenas: