The Art of War – 4. Water Alike

The Art of War

Series 4 – Water Alike


“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” (The Art of War, Section 6 – Weak points and strong, Sun Tzu 5th Century BC)


Sun Tzu suggested that operating an army should be like the running of water.

Water flows downwards avoiding high places taking the easiest course, settling for the low ground; as an army should avoid the strong and strike the weak.

Water change its flow depending on the natural course; as the army should change its tactics depending on its opponent.

Therefore, there is no certain shape of water; nor are there certain tactics that an army should follow. The one who can change best, depending on the present situation and their opponents’ disposition, will obtain victory.


Application to business:

This treatise is all about “Flexibility & Adaptability”. The business environment today is more complex than it has ever been, due to some major factors such as: technology, politics and more direct and frequent international communications.

Adaptability has become a “must have strategy” for modern businesses. The ability to adjust and react according to market changes, competitors’ actions, innovation implications, regulation of industry changes etc., will help businesses travel through unexpected emergencies and changes.

A great example is Honda. Between the two world wars Japan received sanctions on the development and trading of industrial techniques from other nations. The Japanese government encouraged local businesses to develop their own vehicle and airplane designs. Soichiro Honda (founder of Honda Motor Co.) started his business by manufacturing automobile piston rings.   

When World War 2 started, the government forced Honda Motors to merge with Toyota. After World War 2, Soichiro started a new business by designing and building motorcycles thereby avoiding immediate competition with other strong competitors such as Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda. By 1961, Soichiro had earned enough capital and became a master of the design and manufacture of small high revving engines.  However, he still wanted to return to his passion making automobiles. After the second world war, many foreign brands gained access to the Japanese market.  The Japanese government came up with a new policy forcing automobile companies to merge and there would only be 3 companies left by 1963. Soichiro realized it would be almost impossible to start making automobiles competitively and become one of the top 3 companies with market share in 2 years. (from 1961~1963)  

Soichiro took an unexpected approach.  He was determined to participate in the Formula 1 competition.  His aim was to prove Honda was within the top 3 automobile brands in Japan by winning races.  Due to years of experience developing engines and incredible determination, Honda finally won a championship on his second year. Through effective advertising and promotion, Honda survived the governmental merger policies. Even so, there were so many changes and difficulties to be overcome.  Soichiro and Honda were able to adapt and react to many of these problems with the flexibility and endurance that is essential to Sun Tzu 6th treatise of finding a new course like water running down the hill.  And so, the kingdom of Honda began.


Written by Conrad (Kang-Wei) Lin | 林剛維, 30/11/2018



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