7 Business Lessons from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Warlords and strategists teach you all about doing business.

Singapore Business Owners


Running a business can sometimes feel like fighting a war.

It involves deploying people, resources and strategy optimally.

So what better way to learn how to fight a war than from some famous war strategists?

The Romance of Three Kingdoms is set in a turbulent time at the end of Han dynasty and the rise of the Three Kingdoms.

Though the classic novel isn’t 100 per cent based on real-life people and events (there are some legendary and mythical elements thrown in), its characters are known for making some of the boldest and wildly ingenious war decisions.

Hidden in the novel are many important business lessons as well.

Lesson #1: Talent is as important as money

Romance three kingdoms
Having talents is as important as having money

When Cao Cao started his fundraising journey to build his first army, he had highlighted to his father (his investor) that his focus is not just on money, but also on finding good talents.

Having money to start and sustain your business is important.

However, having talented people in key positions is also critical to the business’s success. In the pursuit of raising funds, do not neglect the importance of finding and retaining talents.

Lesson #2: Reputation is an important asset

7 Business Lessons from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 1
“I have kindness and righteousness as my principles in treating others.”

On the first day that Zhao Yun joined Liu Bei, Zhao Yun asked Liu Bei why he chose to save Tao Qian when Liu Bei only had such a small army. Liu Bei told him that while he does not have a big army or plenty of resources, he has his reputation as a righteous man. It was the only thing he can leverage on in his startup days. His reputation helped him to recruit talented generals as people believed that he was able to make the world a better place.

Regardless of the business you are operating, remember that the world is ultimately run by people. A good reputation is a form of branding, attracting good talents and customers. Treat your employees, shareholders and customers with heart and kindness, and trust that they will be the ones taking care of your business.

Lesson #3: There’s a right time to seek help

7 Business Lessons from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 2
“But if we go now, all alone, we will not be put in key positions.”

When Chen Gong had successfully helped Cao Cao to escape from Dong Zhuo, he asked Cao Cao why he didn’t seek the help of Yuan Shao, who was already a rising warlord at that time. Cao Cao explained that if he sought help at that time when he had nothing, he would’ve not been highly regarded.

It is important to understand that the world of business is not a charity. For someone to help you, there are must be something in it for the other party. It may sound mercenary, but the benefit that you bring does not have to be something of monetary value. It may be the satisfaction derived out of helping you or how charitable they appear to others. While it sounds as if you’re being made use of, remember at that point in time, you got the help you needed.

If you are looking for an investment, you need to approach the investors when you have already proven something. If you approach them too early, they may not be interested or they may request for a larger percentage of equity.

If you are looking for a bank loan, you need to prove your credibility. Otherwise, you will only attract loan packages with high interest rates that will not be favourable for your business’s financial position.

#Lesson 4: It’s okay to fail

7 Business Lessons from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 3
“Failure teaches us how to succeed.”

After Cao Cao’s famous defeat at Red Cliff, Cao Cao rallied his troops and gave a stirring speech on how they should not let defeat crush their spirits and instead be inspired by their failure, which had taught them how to succeed. It was also after this event that Cao Cao finally recruited Sima Yi, a brilliant military advisor that will become the nemesis of Zhuge Liang in future battles.

In business, there are bound to be failures. It’s important for business owners to be persistent and resilient. Think about the factors that led to the failure and how we can avoid a repeat in the future. Life is a learning journey, especially when you are running a business.

#Lesson 5: Buy time and be ready for the moment

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“My Lord, the reason why Cao Cao invited you for tea was so that he could buy himself some time.”

In the landmark Guan Du battle, when Cao Cao managed to defeat Yuan Shao’s overwhelming force by leveraging on the angle of the afternoon sun, Cao Cao managed to buy some time by pretending to be negotiating and being friendly.

Do not rush when making business decisions. Bide your time, weigh your options and act only when the time is ripe. Never let external pressures force you into doing something that is not timely.

#Lesson 6: Find the whys

7 Business Lessons from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 5
“I wanted them to spread around reports of the extent of my sorrows, so that all the lords of the realm may know that Tao Qian murdered my dad.”

When Cao Cao’s father got murdered by a rogue official from another province, he intentionally broadcasted his sorrow and anger to create the perfect justification for invading the city without looking like an unreasonable invader (not that an invasion is ever justified, but you get what I mean).

When doing anything in life, we all need a “why”. It’s very important for us to identify that the whys in ourselves, our business and our employees. Why are you running this business? Why is there a need for your business? Why are people working for you?

#Lesson 7: You may lose everything one day

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“I launched a campaign with an army of 700,000. And now, I don’t even have a hundred men left.”

With strong ancestral roots and fairly successful campaigns, Yuan Shao had a strong start at the beginning of the novel. Then he got distracted by his family and sidetracked by his own indecisiveness, which caused him to miss opportunities to win wars.

Leveraging on this opportunity, Cao Cao managed to win consecutive battles against Yuan Shao and finally left him with less than a hundred men by the river bank.

It’s important for us not to be complacent regardless of the successes we could have already achieved because we can all fail for a variety of reasons. As business owners, we should always stay alert and be on the lookout for competition, technological changes or even political threats.

Featured image from Red Cliff

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