Gian = Leadership: Timeless Advice on Competitive Advantage

The Art of War

In his book, The Art of War for Executives, author Donald G. Krause provides interpretations of author Sun Tzu’s writings from The Art of War to help business leaders use the material in everyday business situations.

His interpretations incorporate philosophies from modern business leaders such as Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, as well as military strategists such as George Patton and J.F.C. Fuller.

Sun Tzu said: “We estimate using five principles and calculate our strategies. Then, we judge our course of action.”

Gian = Leadership

Of the five principles…the fourth is called Gian (or leadership).

This principle—Gian—is the basis for this article. I have sifted through Krause’s modern interpretation and compiled three focus areas with timeless points of wisdom that can and should be applied by leaders in every business to gain and sustain a competitive advantage.

These points are:

  • Information
  • Perceptions and Your Target Market
  • Competitive Strategy

On Information

“Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  • Timely, accurate information is the lifeblood of successful competition.
  • Information means getting facts—timely, accurate facts—about the reality of conditions and circumstances in the competitive situation. Nothing in competition is more important than getting facts.
  • Facts clarify the situation. Alternatives are based on the facts. Appropriateness is based on evaluation of alternatives. And action is based on appropriateness.
  • Information also means giving out perceptions. Perceptions are facts and fiction that move your competitors and constituents where you want them.
  • When an executive fails in competitive operations, it is due to overdependence on internal knowledge or folk wisdom. Folk wisdom is that body of unchallenged assumptions which everyone thinks to be true. Folk wisdom exists in every organization. The value of information offered by people who do not know constituents personally is almost zero, particularly in times of rapid change. Decisions made far from the constituents impoverish the executive.
  • The wise executive harvests timely information from his constituents and his competitors. One new product idea generated from discussion with a real client is worth any number of ideas generated by consultants or [internal] staff.
  • Learn more about the people who use your products. Get better information. Create new products and services that fill previously unrecognized needs. Move quickly before your competitor finds out.

On Perception and Your Target Markets

“Whether in an advantageous position or a disadvantageous one, the opposite state should be always present to your mind.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  • Keep your good name and your superior reputation before those who determine your future. Keep the quality and value of your products/[services] in the minds of your clients. Keep your clients’ needs uppermost in your mind.
  • In circumstances where your competitor is strong, develop innovative products and services. Look for indications of constituent dissatisfaction. Move quickly to meet needs. Where you competitor is weak, emphasize the advantages of your products. Look for better ways to serve.
  • Wear out your competition with unrelenting attention to the needs of your constituents.
  • If you have twice as many clients, make sure you understand why they are choosing your product and why they might choose your competitors’. Talk with your constituents. Talk with your competitors’ constituents. Redefine and differentiate yourself. How are you different? How are you superior?
  • Seek to divide the constituent group into smaller, more profitable niches which you can dominate. Further, seek new constituents for existing services. What additional services can you provide? Can you meet needs outside your currently defined constituency? Look at yourself through new eyes.

On Competitive Strategy

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  • An executive must create plans for competitive actions which allow him/her to leverage his/her particular strengths within his/her organization in the marketplace. By competitive actions, I mean actions that bring an individual or an organization into conflict with other individuals or organizations. Leveraging your strengths gives you a competitive advantage.
  • All competitive advantage is based on effective execution of plans. Poor execution ruins superior plans. Superior execution saves mediocre plans. Further, superior execution can make more effective use of innovation and information. Surprise your competitors with your willingness and ability to adapt and change.
  • Constantly seek new approaches and methods, seek new market segments and different clients. Even with successful products look for new uses among old clients and new clients among those not considered before.
  • Confuse your competitors with constant innovation and superior service. Innovation is the one weapon which cannot be defended against.
  • The ideal strategy is to make competitors’ products or services obsolete through innovation.
  • Your aim is to take over a group of constituents intact by appearing superior in their minds. Thus your resources will be preserved and your profit will be greater. This is the art of effective competitive strategy.
  • The ability to triumph is a matter of positioning. Wait for the opportunity created by others. Execute effective strategies at the appropriate time.

Do you feel there are any important pieces of wisdom missing from the lists above as they relate to obtaining information, perceptions and target markets, or competitive strategy that are vital to business success? Do you disagree with any of the points above? I would like to hear your perspectives.

Note: I have changed Krause’s use of the word “customer” to “client” to stick with my viewpoint that all buyers should be considered “clients” with whom you want to build and maintain a relationship, rather than “customers” with a transactional focus.


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Rob Wolfe
Rob Wolfe is Consultant at Towers Watson
He help with engagement, solution selling, relationship management & social media
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