All warfare is based on deception.
So said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist whose writings have inspired many leaders in both the military and, in recent times, the business world.
By deception Sun Tzu doesn’t mean dishonesty. He means craftiness, guile and cunning that throws the enemy into confusion or forces him to make a certain move.
You can see this in what is called a tactical retreat, whereby you “retreat” to lure the enemy into ground where you have the advantage. Or in the “collapse” defence used in martial arts that is designed to allow you a better stance or position.
It is easier to attack than defend. It is easier to lay siege than to be besieged. Those who are defending have something to protect.
Sometimes, particularly in a trench warfare situation, it is better to abandon a position than defend it. If it is defended at great cost, let the enemy have it for a while so he may incur the losses.
How does this translate to a business setting? Well, maybe you have a client that all your competitors are snapping at your heels to take from you. If you are really confident that no-one else can service this client better than you, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to “surrender” the account and let everybody see – competitors and client alike – that you are the best supplier. Once your client has had a taste of the inferior, you will never have trouble again and will be the only choice.
In sports settings it is sometimes better to let your opponent come on to you in order that you can effectively counterattack.
Sometimes the best revenge is to let your opponent win. If it is a costly victory, then you will win the war even if you lose the battle.
Your greatest enemy is often your ego that compels you to win every round. In warfare, the objective is not ego gratification but ultimate victory.
Sometimes you have to deceive the enemy into thinking you are bigger, stronger, greater than you are. But if you are trying to lure your opponent or lull him into a false sense of security, it is often better to hide your strength and appear weaker.
Strategy is about outwitting your opponent. This is what Sun Tzu means when he says that that warfare is based on deception. The less the enemy knows about you – your capabilities and your weaknesses – the better your chances.
The unknown can be your best weapon. This is often why great businessmen and women are often secretive and intensely private. The more of an enigma you are, the less your opponents can strategise against you.
People are often deceived into thinking they have won. A great example is how vulnerable football teams often are right after scoring a goal.
Controlling this is the art of strategy. The trick is to let your opponent believe he has won and that is when you strike.
Boxing is a great example. You let your opponent hit you because in doing so he exposes himself to your own strike.
Please understand I am not talking here about surrendering and walking away to fight another day. I am talking about making it look like you are surrendering in order to fight another way. Both are options but the first is a response to defeat; the second is a tactical decision. The difference is that the first option is often imposed upon you, the second is you directing the war.
This is all about perceptions and appearances. By controlling how your enemy perceives you, you stand more chance of determining the outcome you desire.
When you are under attack, the stronger you resist very often means you are allowing your foe to dictate the play. Two opposing forces can lead to stalemate. By collapsing your own resistance and choosing a new position or battle ground you can swiftly turn the tables on a pressing opponent.
It isn’t just about being unpredictable. It is about being proactive rather than reacting to situations.
When your enemy pushes you, pull him towards you. When he pulls, push. Do what is not expected.
If you cannot make your enemy fear you, the next best thing is for him to be complacent and write you off.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” SUN TZU