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wall street, gordon gekko, sun tzu, art of war, wimb, war is my business

We would like to begin by quoting two passages from a movie aptly appropriate to our discussion: Wall Street. The first one has Gordon Gekko stating to Bud Fox:

“Public is out there throwing darts at a board, sport. I don’t throw darts at a board… I bet on sure things. Read Sun Tzu the Art of War… Every battle is won before it’s ever fought… Think about it.”

Later on, Fox, having studied the art of business under Gekko’s tutelage, would paraphrase Sun Tzu:

“If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him.  If equally matched, fight, and if not, split and reevaluate.”

These choice pieces of dialogue from the corporate business-classic Wall Street (1987) in which the protagonist Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, is taken in by the greedy and ruthless, yet wise, Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. The movie is rife with references to military theory and treats business dealings much like battlefields in the way they use military-themed analogies. In fact, the positive reception viewers had towards the character of Gekko, with his strong eccentric attitude, and their depiction of Wall Street as a cutthroat and intense environment had begun to make Sun Tzu and his Art of War a part of popular culture in western business circles.

Contemporary business owners and their associates have taken to these writings voraciously, and have elevated it to mandatory reading within many professional businesses. Some conclude that its continued popularity can be based on its simple aphorisms that make remembering tenets easy, and being able to recite those tenets have become a symbol of your corporate warrior status. Discussing Sun Tzu brings about images that are both exotic and immemorial; it is, or at least was, an unorthodox approach to managing a modern organization, and seemed to fit well with the zero-sum mentality of 20th Century capitalism; corporate warfare where to the winner goes the spoils of that conflict. Gregory Beyer, on discussing the topic of the Art of War’s prevalence in the business world, in his article “Why Business Leaders Are Obsessed with Sun Tzu’s Ancient Military Guide, The Art of War” wrote for the Huffington Post:

“A lot of workplace phrases already allude to conflict, strife and violence. We’re slammed. We’re tied up. We cannibalize ideas and convene in war rooms. Corporations plan hostile takeovers. Maybe looking to a book about ancient warfare for business guidance isn’t such a stretch after all.”

Indeed, the leaders of many western corporations have been looking towards Japan’s post-war economic recovery, that had made their nation a global economic power, and have tried to determine where that drive originated. While the United States carried much of the economic and military burden to safeguard the young fledgling democracy from the ashes of the Second World War, it was still up to the Japanese to make use of the opportunity to focus its efforts to rebuilding what was lost; to become the proverbial phoenix. In 2016, Japan Times pulled a poll from the Shukan Diamond, a weekly Japanese business magazine, which asked major corporate heads from who and where they found inspirational guidance. Sun Tzu’s Art of War polled in at a strong 31% of Japanese business leaders behind the more relatable and influential founder of modern business, Peter Drucker.

Peter Drucker, War Is My Business, WIMB

Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was born in Austria, but immigrated to the United States in his mid-twenties where he became a university professor and business consultant. He shaped the idea of western business, and his writings have influenced major and minor corporations around the world. An obvious and suitable source of guidance for business management in Japan, and his influence on post-war economic development is openly acknowledged. Compare that to the 2,500-year-old martial wisdom of Sun Tzu, and we beg the question; What value we can derive from those texts that we can’t understand with greater clarity from 20th century business-thinkers, like Drucker?

The answer to this question deals with the existential nature of human conflict. Competition of wills to which modern interpretations of warfare, business, sports, romance, etc. are simply amalgams of many complex social norms underpinned by our brain's ability to infer the world around us and develop recognizable patterns that we can quickly act upon. In simpler terms, war and business have more in common than most would think. It requires a certain level of leadership to direct the actions of many individuals to a common desired end while in conflict with other organizations trying to shape the environment towards their end.

It is no wonder that we share many analogies between these various human endeavors; warfare, business, etc. because they are all irrevocably linked at the level of the human domain, and the need to simplify complex issues into easy and executable principles and tenets. You may feel “pinned down” by a tough and harsh-line of questioning from a reporter, much like a soldier may be pinned down by enemy gunfire; both being unable to act effectively against the threat due to concerns for one’s wellbeing. You may experience the short-end of a “hostile takeover,” much like a weaker state would become the vassal by a greater nation; both having to shape their courses of action for the betterment of their new overlord and not necessarily themselves.

Before we begin discussing the science, study, and application of this inherent relationship, however, we must first define what military theory is and how becoming a student of it can help your business; in fact all human endeavors.

What is Military Theory?

In the United States Army Center for Military History’s Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, topics of military theory are categorized as, “ideas about war; a generally accepted body of ideas and practices that governs an army’s organization, training, and fighting.” Dr. Milan Vego from the Naval War College, however, provides a more detailed definition of military theory in his article “On Military Theory” for the Joint Forces Quarterly:

“In the broad definition of the term, military theory can be described as a comprehensive analysis of all the aspects of warfare, its patterns and inner structure, and the mutual relationships of its various components/elements. It also encapsulates political, economic, and social relationships within a society and among the societies that create a conflict and lead to a war. Sound military theory explains how to conduct and win a war. It also includes the use of military force to prevent the outbreak of war.”

For the layman, however, we can simply describe military theory as:

Military theory seeks to develop principles and tenets which help the individual understand the nature of warfare and military thought, in all its complexities, in order to apply those principles and tenets to the study of military history and anticipate the future of armed conflict.

War Is My Business will cover the science, study and application of many principles and tenets of military theory in order to assist the reader in identifying useful and interesting aspects of the study of armed conflict throughout human history. These aspects can be translated into actionable items for a business to apply to their strategy and their organization’s operations.

Why Should Civilian Businesses Study Military Theory, Principles, and Tenets?


Success in warfare, as is similar in commercial businesses, comes from the development of an overarching strategy that achieves that success. Development of this strategy can be supported through the use of an eight-step model to which the reader may not be familiar with, but will be better understood once you understand the nature of an effects-based approach to operations. The eight-step model is as follows:

  1. Understand the conditions of the operational environment.
  2. Determine how partners, neutral parties, and adversaries perceive you and the environment around them and how they will act on this knowledge.
  3. Envision the ends you wish to achieve.
  4. Take account of the ways and means available to shape the conditions of your environment.
  5. Develop courses of action that shape those conditions towards your desired ends.
  6. Establish tactics, techniques, and procedures for command and control that facilitate the execution of your courses of action and implement those changes.
  7. Execute your course of action.
  8. Supervise execution; mitigate negative effects and take advantage of opportunities.


For militaries, businesses and, arguably, any type of human endeavor that seeks a desired end, this model provides a general method for successfully achieving them. This model will be discussed again when we discuss the application of military theory, but for now it needs to be understood that this is the way in which both militaries and businesses develop their strategy; or at least relatively successful ones. This works because all human endeavors; military, business, etc. have a common denominator, and it’s human. Through human perception, we analyze the world around us. We work with other humans to determine how best to survive and thrive by developing societies built on social norms that facilitate cooperative human activity that supports the interests of that society; war, business, et al. There is a link between all human endeavors, and it is at the level of human perception that you can find it.


So the question that begs to be asked, Why should civilian businesses study military theory? Warfare and commercial businesses may be irrevocably linked at the level of the human domain. But what value is there to trying to translate military theory over to civilian usage instead of seeking examples and guidance from other successful businesses? If you understand Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fit” and how that has translated into the business world, then you may begin to understand how military theory can and should be applied into the civilian world.

George Patton, WIMB, War Is My Business
Lieutenant General George S. Patton,  US Army

American General George S. Patton, earlier in his career in a January 1931 article for the Cavalry Journal entitled, “Success In War,” once wrote:

“In considering these matters, we should remember that while there is much similarity there is also a vast difference between the successful soldier and the successful man in other professions. Success due to knowledge and personality is the measure of ability in each case; but to all save the soldier it has vital significance only to the individual and to a limited number of his associates. With the soldier, success or failure means infinitely more, as it must of necessity be measured not in terms of personal honor or affluence, but in the life, happiness, and honor of his men; his country. Hence, the search for that elusive secret of military success, soul, genius, personality; call it what you will; is of vital interest to us all.”

What Patton meant by this is that the consequences inherent in military operations are existentially more dire than compared to civilian business dealings. A company that takes a risky course of action and fails can suffer significant financial losses and potentially set the conditions that lead to either bankruptcy or dissolution. Many successful businesses have had numerous failures, but still managed to maintain their existence, though at a loss of money and a handful of people who may have been fired as a result.

On the other hand, a military commander, and their forces, that fail to achieve battlefield successes, or a nation that fails to develop a comprehensive strategy for national security, may suffer much worse. Nations may lose their prestige they hold within the world. Military personnel and the citizens they protect may lose their lives and their freedoms. The nation and its people may lose their sovereignty. The society may be forced to change the way of life to which they have defined themselves. Even the most competent military organization given the most advantageous of battlefield conditions expects to suffer some form of loss of life from its combat operations.

Because the consequences of military endeavors are so great for human societies; they, therefore, weigh heavily on the minds of the leadership of states and nations. This translates into the expectations we place on military leadership, their staff, and the nation that supports them to develop courses of action that achieve greater results for the lowest of costs. The ways and means they determine how to achieve success therefore can literally mean the life and death of nations and their people. When we study the battles that were fought, the campaigns that were waged, and the writings they left behind, we can see how success and failure were shaped by how they perceived the world around them. If we could ascertain the elements of military principles and tenets that lead to battlefield success, then arguably you could apply those elements to other human endeavors to achieve a combat-tested edge against your competition.


Imagine if you will, that you had a startup business which, at the global level, was competing against mega-corporations, like Apple and Amazon, as well as numerous regional powerhouses in your own backyard. In this scenario you are obviously the underdog, trying to find an edge in on the competition; make a name for yourself, your business, and your brand. You seek inspiration and strategy to compete and succeed in your new endeavor. You look towards Sun Tzu’s Art of War for guidance like so many other successful companies have done in the past. You read about how to employ deception, attack where they are weak while avoiding where they are strong, you try to fathom their plans while making yours unfathomable. You take the guidance to heart through your own interpretation of the writings, but failed to succeed, not in the long term, but in the short term. Did you fail to comprehend Sun Tzu’s guidance? Maybe military theory doesn't translate over into non-military endeavors, and everyone is just deluding themselves that it does.


We will delve deeper into Sun Tzu and writings associated with him later, but one common tenet accredited to him involves knowing oneself and one’s enemies. He said that if one could fathom this, then they needn’t worry about the outcome of future battles. Later on we will discuss the validity of this concept, but for now we will simply reference this in regards to the scenario above.


You attempted to challenge your competitor by using the guidance found within the Art of War. You assessed that your opposition has significant strength in many areas that you lack, and that what few weaknesses you were able to identify you tried to develop an overarching strategy and take advantage of that weakness to strengthen yourself. It is a very direct approach to defeating a competitor’s course of action, to derail their operations, to which provide you opportunities for success. Indeed, deceiving the enemy and defeating their plans was more important in Sun Tzu’s mind than defeating their forces in direct confrontation. You did this, however, you failed… Why is that?

As stated previously, your business was the underdog in this scenario competing against the great corporations of your time. But let’s focus our attention on the age of Sun Tzu, in the Chinese Late Spring and Autumn Period; circa 5th and 6th Century BCE. Who was the audience that Sun Tzu directed his wisdom towards? Sun Tzu provided military advice to King Helu of the State of Wu whose preeminent concern was protecting the state from external aggression from his neighbors; primarily the State of Chu to their west. While the Wu were indeed militarily weaker than that of their Chu adversary they were far from an underdog. Competent leadership, sound tactical employment of forces, a comprehensive intelligence network, and a well-trained and disciplined force is all that was required to defeat the Chu.

Wu’s military capacity when compared to that of Chu’s is what contemporary military organizations refer to as a “near-peer” military force. Practically equal in capabilities save for a few areas dealing with manpower and specialized equipment. If we were to use this analogy to compare your startup business then your company would be comparable to that of a band of brigands and looters attacking caravans and small towns on the periphery of Chu’s kingdom. A minor threat to stability at best, but mostly just an annoyance. The tenets of the Art of War were created to support the employment of strategy for states of comparable means, and its guidance would have helped your company in the modern business world about as much as it would’ve helped a band of criminals.

Chinese Plains, Spring and Autumn period, WIMB, War Is My Business

Created by YUG and available on the Creative Commons here.

In this situation does the Art of War provide any applicable wisdom that may benefit your organization? Yes, naturally, but you will need to determine what is appropriate based on your current conditions. Sun Tzu spoke of ways to effectively command and control an organization through established rewards and punishments, methods of communication, the development of subordinate leadership, and methods to improve efficiency in command and control valuable, regardless of the size of the organization. He also identified developing partnerships with others in order to not only reduce the potential number of adversaries you may face, but primarily to improve the amount of support you can leverage for development of the state and future conflicts. Sound guidance regardless of the conditions you find yourself in.

There will be a time, however, where you will, and should, develop a course of action that directly or indirectly puts you in conflict with one or more companies that you determine to be a competitor to your interests. The Art of War was your go-to book for inspiration, but wasn’t necessarily the best surrogate for your business model. What should you do and where should you seek guidance? There are literally thousands of examples of military theory written in tomes, published in manuals, and displayed in battlefield achievements. You just need to know where and how to look for it.

Sun Tzu may have written guidance for the State of Wu to compete against the near superior threat of the State of Chu, but you may be able to derive some inspiration for your own organization even though the disparity in capacity between Wu and Chu was far less significant than between you and your competition. Why not look towards examples where weaker states, nations, and militaries were able to prevail against those much stronger than them?

  • About six-hundred years prior to Sun Tzu’s Late Spring and Autumn Era, the inferior State of Zhou was able to bring the superior Shang Dynasty to ruin through a protracted effort thanks to the guidance of Jiang Ziya, and his Six Secret Teachings, and established the Western Zhou Dynasty around 1050 BCE.

  • During the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington was able to maintain the integrity of the Continental Army under poor conditions and after numerous setbacks keeping the revolution alive until the tides of international military and political pressure; not to mention internal pressures from Parliament, forced the British to terms.

  • During the Chinese Civil War during and after the Second World War, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Forces, much like George Washington, were able to keep the bulk of its military forces alive while maneuvering against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Forces. He leveraged the strength of local warlords, traversed through inhospitable terrain, employed an intensive guerrilla campaign against the Nationalists, and successfully forced their withdrawal from the mainland cementing China as a communist nation.

  • Much of the nation of Israel’s young existence has been plagued with constant border conflicts, and a few high-intensity wars with its Arab neighbors that threatened to destroy it completely. Through a proactive strategy, they were able to contend with these existential threats, and have both proven their strong military capacity given their numerical disadvantage, as well as established a strong democratic nation within a violent neighborhood.

This handful of examples showcase potential comparisons that can be made between weaker organizations that compete against superior ones, but you may not be satisfied with just how the weak can fight the strong. When businesses become strong they will have to compete on equal footing alongside their competitors, and that is why we will not only cover examples such as these previous ones, but we will also discuss examples of military principles and tenets that cover guidance for the execution of conflict between peer and near-peer threats; like the Art of War by Sun Tzu. Furthermore, for the giants of commerce and industry that you may one day become, we will also discuss the principles and tenets surrounding those with strong military capacity in conflict with significantly weaker forces.

The difficulty lies in determining how best to translate and implement ancient through contemporary military theory into an applicable course of action for a 21st Century civilian environment. War Is My Business will attempt to help in ascertaining ways in which to do that by first establishing that science irrevocably links military theory to all human endeavors. Then we will discuss how to analyze various battles, military publications, and great writings on military theory to determine those fundamental elements that lead to success, and how we translate that over to general tenets for civilian usage. Finally, we will discuss how to implement those elements into civilian businesses and even discuss a handful of contemporary examples where veterans and corporate-savvy individuals were able to employ military theory to benefit their businesses. By the end, we hope that you have a better understanding of what military theory is, and how it can benefit you, your business, and almost every activity you wish to undertake. Before we continue, we mentioned we would discuss the science that makes all this work.

Why cover the science of War Is My Business instead of jumping straight into studying military principles and tenets?

The science of War Is My Business acts as the argument, a presupposition that supports and justifies all our future discussions. It is the fundamental tool that allows us to surrogate principles and tenets, analyze martial leaders, and breakdown battles into a form that we can use for business. Our entire premise is that elements derived from conflict can help shape a business, but unlike others, we seek to back our claims in scientific facts and logical conclusions. The science we discuss will be all-encompassing and based upon a Theory of Everything, as put forth by the scientific community.

It will start with the section titled “Fundamentals” in which we go over the fundamental forces of the universe within the discussion of the Grand Unified Theory that fundamentally dictates all interactions in the cosmos and the creation of all matter. Following that, in “Complex Applications,” we discuss the impact that these fundamental laws have when they are combined into more complex ways such as the formation of chemicals, building the systems of our cosmos, and the conversion and transfer of energy. Subsequently, in “Life And Evolution,” we discuss the universe’s most complex chemical system in the form of life and how it changes over time. After which, in “The Human Domain,” we discuss those aspects of human perception that allow us to understand the nature of our environments, develop norms on how we should act within that environment, and why we differentiate between endeavors like war and business. Then, in “Bridging The Civil-Military Divide,” we cover the commonalities between military and business organizations in order to showcase that fundamentally they are the same thing, and with a final summation, wrap up the science of War Is My Business.

Everyone has their own reasons for studying the history of warfare, and the principles and tenets of military theory. For those coming to War Is My Business, you may have multiple reasons. It may be to see how we perceive the similarities between human conflict and commerce, and how they naturally stem from the fundamental forces that dictate the laws of our universe. If this is the case, we advise going through the entirety of the science of War Is My Business. On the other hand, if you simply want to jump right into the analysis and applications derived from military leaders, battles, and theory then feel free to jump past the science. We would suggest, however, to instead start from The Human Domain, or at least Bridging the Civil-Military Divide in order to gain a better understanding of how we are making the connections between these apparently disparate endeavors.

That being said, let us begin at the very beginning of literally everything.

(Next Section)



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