The Influence of Military Strategy on Business Strategy

Drawing parallels between two distinct fields

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

By studying military strategies and their connections to business strategies, businesses can capture markets, compete with rivals, and lead teams toward objectives.

United States Army Field Manual

In the United States, the essential military strategy concepts are distributed with the United States Army Field Manual. Within it, 9 concepts are outlines:

  1. Objective
    (Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective)
  2. Offensive
    (Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative)
  3. Mass
    (Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time)
  4. Economy of Force
    (Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts)
  5. Maneuver
    (Place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power)
  6. Unity of Command
    (For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander)
  7. Security
    (Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage)
  8. Surprise
    (Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared)
  9. Simplicity
    (Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding)
United States Army Lt. Gen. John Kimmons with a copy of the Army Field Manual, FM 2–22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations, in 2006

Upon reading these concepts, it’s easy to understand how “objective” could be applied to quarterly earnings, “economy of force” could be applied to a working group or committee, and security could be applied to something as normal as a Wi-Fi password.

The Art of War

While these concepts function mostly as primary definitions used to understand components of a strategy, the ways for executing successful strategies have changed throughout history. During the antiquity period, military strategies were developed from leaders such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Zhuge Liang. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu is one of the more famous books, originating from the Eastern Zhou period in Ancient China (roughly 5th century BC).

A Chinese bamboo copy of “The Art of War” (孫子兵法). From the collection at the University of California, Riverside. The cover also reads “乾隆御書”, meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor.

Here are a few quotes from the book and how they can be immediately applied to business strategy:

“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril”

— Sun Tzu

In essence, we should maximize business intelligence and wisdom we gain from our experience and from others’. When we utilize this knowledge and wisdom to our advantage, we will have a less likelihood of losing.

“When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.”

— Sun Tzu

As a leader of people within an organization, we should invest in our character, ethics, and morals because people will confidently follow a person who upholds these values—particularly in times when unification is beneficial for everyone.

The 33 Strategies of War

A more contemporary book of military strategies is Robert Greene’s 2006 book titled “The 33 Strategies of War”. It’s a collection of offensive and defensive strategies from a wide variety of people from history, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, and Lawrence of Arabia. Robert Greene has also written on Power, Mastery, and Seduction, but we’ll focus on his book about War here.

Books by Robert Greene

In “The 33 Strategies of War”, Greene instills the history of military strategy into 33 laws that are much more immediately applicable. Several topics from the book include “Defeat them in Detail”, “Negotiate While Advancing”, and my personal favorite: “Avoid the Snares of Groupthink”. Let’s explore these strategies as they relate to Tesla.

Defeat them in Detail

Essentially, leaders should not be intimidated by the appearance of the competition—there’s a process to conquer them. First, look at the whole of the competition and then break them down into small, formidable pieces that can be understood and then explored for opportunities.

When Tesla entered the automotive market, they looked for very specific areas where they could excel. First, being the acceleration factor of electric cars and this being a desirable factor for most automobiles. By developing an electric car that could accelerate 0 to 60 mph in just 1.9 seconds. This beats almost all combustion engines in consumer-level automobiles.

Negotiate While Advancing

Before and during negotiations, a business must continue to advance. In doing so, the company develops a reputation for being tough, uncompromising, and on the edge of innovation.

While Tesla is currently developing autonomous driving, they’ve hit a number of setbacks, mostly from lawmakers who want to ensure the safety of its drivers and the public. Tesla has not stopped this project despite the numerous tests and is planning to roll out full autonomous driving in 2021. Eventually, Tesla will be the first consumer-based automobile to be autonomous and will be a pioneer in the industry.

Avoid the Snares of Groupthink

One of the challenges with leading a group or working in a group is everyone has their own agendas and will inevitably make them part of the discussion. If a leader has objectives and missions for the organization, it’s important to understand the irrationality of the collective decision-making process and its downfalls. Know when to follow a chain of command, know when to integrate other perspectives, be inclusive, but understand when to integrate groups into the problem-solving process and when to assign such problems to specialists.

One of the most important people behind the scenes at Tesla is Franz von Holzhausen, the principal designer of Tesla’s cars. While Tesla’s innovations are usually the focus in the news, the elegance of these cars can be immediately attributed to Holzhausen. In looking at Tesla’s organizational chart, it has 9 on the board of directors, 3 in a leadership team, and a single CEO, but it trusts Holzhausen to execute an elegant and delightful style in all of its cars.

Trusting people who have a vision is paramount to Tesla’s success.

Franz von Holzhausen and a Model 3 prototype


The parallels between military and business strategies have limitations, however; it’s important to understand businesses exist to serve communities, build wealth, and collaborate with other organizations.

While powerful forces have fought throughout history, the same forces have been allies with one another, as well. Utilizing strategies such as these at the right time can lead to gains, but never burn bridges that could serve as some of the greatest partnerships that benefit both sides in the long run.

It’s not necessary to think like a military general, but studying their strategies put tools in our toolbox that help leaders reach their objectives.

Intersecting innovation, education, and technology.

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