The Art of Strategy: Applying the Art of War by Cao Cao (Part 1)

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Home > Articles > The Art of Strategy: Applying the Art of War by Cao Cao (Part 1)

 The Art of Strategy: Applying the Art of War by Cao Cao (Part 1)

Sheh Seow Wah | Today's Manager
December 2, 2019

​This article analysed the eight war strategies used by Cao Cao that can be applied to contemporary times in business and management.

China was united by Emperor Qin ShiHuang under the Qin Dynasty, which followed by the Han Dynasty, for a total of 441 years. After the fall of the Eastern Han (206 BC to 220 AD), China again entered into a warring era and the country was divided into three parts—thus began the story of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Wu, and Shu). As the Chinese saying goes:

“The dynasty after divided, must unite; after united,
must divide”.

At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, tens of thousands of peasant rebels due to internal political struggle. After the rebellion, the Eastern Han fell apart into three confronting forces—between Cao Cao (Wei Kingdom), Liu-Bei (Shu Kingdom), and SunQuan (Wu Kingdom).

Cao Cao (155 to 220 AD) was born in Pei Guohao (the present Hao County in Anhui Province). Besides being a distinguished and famous politician and strategist, he was a talented man in literature. Cao Cao started his political career at the age of 20 when he was appointed as the magistrate of North Luoyang. In 196 AD, Cao Cao moved the capital from Luoyang to Xu and he himself took the position of prime minister and subsequently granted the title
Prince Wei in 216 AD and died in Luoyang in 220 AD. In the same year that Cao Cao passed away, his son Cao Pi assumed the title of emperor and granted his late father Cao Cao the title Emperor of Wu Di of Wei.

In his 45 years of being in politics, Cao Cao has defeated many rivals and earned himself the reputation of a great military strategist. His thought was very much influenced by the author of The Art of War, Sunzi. In the battleground, Cao Cao used the art of deception and camouflage to overcome his opponents. The following depicts eight of the war strategies used by Cao Cao that can be applied to contemporary times in business and management which will be discussed in two parts.

1. Create a False Situation
Cao Cao was good at using a false situation to trick the enemy and then let them fall into the trap he had set. In a battle with Lu Bu, Cao Cao faked his death by getting his people to hang mourning flags at his encampment to signal his passing away. Lu Bu was taken in and immediately launched an attack on Cao Cao’s encampment where he then suffered a defeat. In the competitive business environment, a wise leader should not reveal too much of your strengths by keeping a low profile as they will only attract your competitors to attack your strengths and strategies.

Applying Sunzi’s The Art of War
Sunzi’s book is called The Art of War or The Art of Strategy, and even called The Art of Deception—art instead of science. The commander must expect the unexpected and predict the unpredictable. A wise commander must be smart and flexible enough in using strategy, taking on the characteristic of bamboo.

2. Use of Fire to Weaken the Enemy
Cao Cao once faced a troop headed by Yuan Shao which was 10 times stronger than his army. In order to weaken the strength of the enemy, Cao Cao intercepted and destroyed several thousands of the enemy’s carts loaded with provisions during a delivery by fire. By cutting off their supplies, he put the enemy troops in a chaotic situation before they could even launch an attack against him.

Applying Sunzi’s The Art of War Chapter 12
In discussing how to use fire, Sunzi describes the five targets for an attack by fire as:
1. men and horses;
2. grain and fodder;
3. wagons and equipment;
4. warehouses; and
5. supply routes.

The key objective of using fire is to destroy. When a fire breaks out inside the enemy’s camp launch an attack from the outside. Always approach a war with utmost caution and do not rush into rash action so is business.

3. Act in Accordance with the Situation
Cao Cao normally conducted an in-depth study of the environment and checked for any danger. This helped him to avoid or expose any conspiracy arranged by his opponents. After a thorough investigation of the environment, he would turn an unfavourable situation to his advantage. In business, being sensitive to the external environment through in-depth environmental analysis should be the top priority for all business people.

Applying Sunzi’s The Art of War Chapter Nine
Sunzi pays full attention to the following four situations 1 that are mountains, river, salt marshes, and open ground. The observation and evaluation of the environment is part and parcel of strategy development. It is only through a deep understanding of the environment that victory can be guaranteed. Knowing self and knowing others coupled with taking advantage of the terrain will ultimately guarantee 100 per cent victory.

4. Turn a Favourable Situation into an Opportunity
Cao Cao knew how to turn a favourable situation or the weakness of his enemy into an opportunity to gain victory. In conquering Hebei, Cao Cao won several battles against Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang. When Yuan Shang sent a message to Cao Cao to surrender, Cao Cao pretended to accept. Cao Cao then followed up with an immediate attack on Yuan Shang’s encampment and gained a complete victory. In business, when your rival is suffering from certain internal weaknesses, it could be an opportunity for you to expand your market share or even buy out your rival’s business.

Applying Sunzi’s The Art of War Chapter Six
In Chapter six, Sunzi emphasising on before embarking on a face-to-face battle against your enemy, try to gain a position of advantage first. Sunzi not only knows how to use positioning strategy to gain an advantage, he also seeks to understand the enemy’s positioning before attack. Sunzi’s general strategy is to first put the enemy at a further disadvantage before designing a specific strategy to gain victory. To operate an army successfully, we must avoid the enemy’s strong points and seek out their weak points. There is no fixed tactic in war. Just learn to modify your tactics in accordance with the changing enemy situation and success or victory will be assured. One needs to continuously monitor the opponent’s strength and position and then use this information to position oneself to gain an upper hand.


1 Lin, Wu Sun (translator), 1995, “Sun Zi: The Art of War & Sun Bin: The Art of War”, People’s China Publishing House, Beijing.



​Dr Sheh Seow Wah is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. He is the author of The Humanistic Way: Lessons from Confucius and Mencius, The Strategic Way: Lessons from the Chinese Strategic Thinkers, Chinese Leadership: Moving from Classical to Contemporary, and Wise Leadership: Timeless Wisdom from the Ancient Chinese.


Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 4, 2019

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