There are many practical lessons that business owners can learn from classical figures.

Sun Tzu is often quoted and there is another whose strategies are worthwhile learning from – Miyamoto Musashi. His “The Book of Five Rings” is still widely read and studied.

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was a Japanese swordsman, philosopher, and strategist, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history. He was born in the Harima Province of Japan and began his training in the martial arts at an early age.

Musashi is best known for his legendary duels and his development of the Niten Ichi-ryu style of swordsmanship, which involved the use of two swords simultaneously. He is said to have fought over 60 duels, winning all of them, and his most famous duel was with Sasaki Kojiro, which took place on the island of Ganryu.

In addition to his martial prowess, Musashi was also a philosopher and strategist. He wrote several books on strategy and martial arts, including “The Book of Five Rings,” which is still widely read today.

Musashi lived during the early Edo period of Japan, a time of relative peace and stability following a long period of civil war. He became a ronin, or masterless samurai, and travelled extensively throughout Japan, studying various martial arts, and engaging in duels.

After retiring from duelling, Musashi became a hermit and spent the rest of his life writing and teaching his philosophy. He died in 1645 at the age of 62, leaving behind a legacy as one of Japan’s greatest swordsmen and thinkers.

So, what are the lessons for business that may still be applied today, some 400 years after the birth of Musashi?

Miyamoto Masashi’s “Book of Five Rings” is a classic text on martial arts strategy and philosophy that offers insights that can be applied to various aspects of life, including business. Here are some lessons that businesses can learn from the “Book of Five Rings”:

Emphasize the importance of preparation

Musashi places great emphasis on preparation and planning before engaging in any activity. This lesson can be applied to businesses that need to plan and prepare for various contingencies to be successful. Scenario planning is a useful tool to provide business operators with various scenarios from which they may choose the one most likely to succeed at a point in time.

Focus on continuous improvement

Musashi advises that individuals should never stop learning and improving their skills. This idea can be applied to businesses as they strive to continually improve their products and services to meet the changing needs of their customers. Kaizen is a concept referring to business activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. Kaizen also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain – source.  It is one of the core principles of the Toyota Production System. The English translation is, broadly speaking, continuous improvement. ‘Kai’ means ‘change’ and ‘zen’ means ‘for the better’. It is a philosophy that helps to ensure maximum quality, the elimination of waste, and improvements in efficiency, both in terms of equipment and work procedures.

Balance short-term and long-term goals

Musashi emphasizes the importance of balancing short-term goals with long-term objectives. Businesses must strike a balance between their immediate needs and their long-term goals to achieve success. The best way to balance the short-term gains and long-term strategy is to direct your every act towards the achievement of your vision and strategy. This can be done by asking yourself the question: Will this short-term action aid in achieving the envisioned future?

Understand your competition

Musashi advises that individuals must know their competition and understand their strengths and weaknesses to be successful. Businesses must also conduct a thorough analysis of their competitors to identify areas where they can differentiate themselves and gain a competitive advantage.

Some ways to analyse competitors:

Understanding your competitors and their business practices is the key to success. It’s important to know what products or services they offer, how they market their business, the nature of their distribution and delivery system, how they implement new technology and how customers view their brand. Obviously, these factors are not always simple to assess. Competition comes in many forms. Direct competitors are easy to find because they sell the same product. Indirect competitors – those who are competing for the same market with slightly different products – are sometimes harder to identify. And competitors can come from anywhere; grocery stores didn’t think they would have to compete against Amazon, but in 2017 the online giant purchased the Whole Foods grocery chain.

Understanding competition is vital in business.

  1. Speak to Your Customers

This is a simple step, but many businesses don’t do enough of it. No one can give you a clearer picture of the competition. If a new customer once got their product or service from another business, ask them why they made the switch. Also, while it might be difficult to hear, it’s also important to reach out to former customers and find out why they stopped using your business and switched to a competitor. You can’t make useful changes without gathering the right information from the right source.

  1. Speak to Your Suppliers

Like an office manager in the corporate world, suppliers know the inside scoop on every business they work with. Getting to know your supplier well is a smart move. While they may not be willing to share detailed information, you may be able to get a general idea of what a competitor is purchasing. They might also provide insight into new products or technology, so you can beat the competition to quality and cost improvements. All information is useful when scouting out the competition.

  1. Speak to Your Competitors

If you use the right approach, you can learn a lot of information about a company by simply contacting them and asking the right questions. While they certainly won’t divulge all of their business strategies, it’s possible to get high-level information such as the size of the company, current product offerings and new markets they may be moving into. Again, even small pieces of information are helpful in putting together the overall puzzle.

  1. Go to Industry Seminars, Conferences and Expos

Whenever those in the same industry meet at a convention, expo or seminar, plenty of valuable information is shared through informational sessions, exhibit booths and networking events. Seeing your competitors in action will give you valuable insight on their business. If there is more than one competitor in your market, you can learn a lot about the differences between competitor A and competitor B, and vice versa.

  1. Conduct Online Research

Of course, competitor research begins by simply searching on Google for their site and then checking out each page in detail. However, there also services such as SpyFu that allow you check up on the keywords and Adwords that competitors purchase, as well as analytics services such as Google Trends and Google Alerts.

  1. Check Social Media

Simply monitoring social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn can offer a lot of insight into what customers and competitors are saying. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the internet is that people speak their minds. This is especially true on review sites such as Yelp or Trip Advisor. Google also offers users the chance to review businesses, all of which is available for free online.

  1. Watch Who Competitors Hire

It’s easy to ascertain where a company is focused by looking at who they hire. A new social media marketing director? A manager for a branch location? Job listings are packed with information about a company. And on sites such as Indeed and Monster, among many others, you can find job listings from all the competitors in your market.

  1. Join Your Local Business Chamber

Networking and attending events will allow you interact with a large variety of businesses in a non-threatening environment, and you will glean a lot of useful information about your market and your competitors.

Maintain a flexible strategy

Musashi advocates for a flexible strategy that can adapt to changing circumstances. Businesses must also be able to adjust their strategies in response to changes in the market, customer needs, or competitive landscape.

Some tips for flexibility:


“From our sample, we concluded that the initial rapid growth of the firms could not be explained by using a traditional competitive framework. Our hypothesis is that the key to the success of these firms lies in the ability of the founders to recognize the need for change, understand how to effect the change, and quickly make the change at important inflection points.

Looking across our sample, we believe this ability to effect strategic change was the result of several factors, including:


Companies tended to be focused on growing their business, and if their competitive position did not provide this opportunity, they were willing to shift focus.


These entrepreneurs continually scanned the environment for other opportunities both within their immediate business and outside of it. If a new opportunity came along, they were quite willing to seize it.


The founders of these firms were often involved in the sales and service process. This put them very close to customers’ concerns and suggestions. The ability to take the “pulse” of the customer and act on it quickly is clearly an advantage over large firms, with their many layers between key decision-makers and the customer sales and service representatives.


In many cases, it was clear that the founders were in daily communication with employees at all levels of the firm. For instance, Lois LeMenager of Marketing Innovators takes a different employee out to lunch every day. This type of regular communication, whether formalized or incidental, allows ideas and concerns to rapidly become apparent to the founders.


Firms that made significant fixed investments such as long-term contracts or an investment in significant fixed assets were less able to modify their competitive position. For example, Facilitec, a manufacturer of commercial grease-guard filter systems, entered into a five-year exclusive manufacturing contract, in exchange for initial product design work. This proved to be a costly move which limited Facilitec’s growth. Companies with a highly variable cost structure were much better able to modify their strategy as needed.


One weakness of many mature firms is that their systems are firmly entrenched, thus limiting strategic flexibility. Organizational structures that crystallize systems and processes make change very difficult. This is due to the resistance of employees who have a vested personal interest in perpetuating the existing organizational dynamic. Smaller firms tend to have employees with much broader job descriptions and generally operate in a less structured environment. Employees of firms that experience rapid growth spend less time worrying about process, and more time on getting the job done relative to the employees of large firms that compete in mature markets.


The more people that are involved in the decision-making process, the more difficult and time-consuming it is to reach a decision. In smaller, entrepreneurial firms, there were fewer decision-makers at the top. Rightly or wrongly, they were able to make decisions quickly. Moreover, these decisions could also be implemented quickly. If the decisions were ill advised, we observed that corrective action was rapidly taken”.

Cultivate a strong team

Musashi believes that individuals must surround themselves with a strong team to be successful. Businesses must also build a strong team of employees, partners, and stakeholders who share their vision and are committed to achieving their goals.

Successful teams typically have the following characteristics:

  • Goal-oriented mindset: The most effective teams set, implement, and track goals together to increase efficiency and improve productivity.
  • Commitment to their roles: Individuals working in roles based on their strengths and expertise are often highly motivated.
  • Open to learning: Some teams may adjust roles and responsibilities due to the needs of a project or task. Team members who are interested in challenging their skills and learning to complete new individual tasks encourage professional growth.
  • Diverse perspectives and experiences: Since diversity tends to encourage creativity and innovation, teams with the largest spectrum of experiences and opinions have the potential to perform at their best.
  • Shared culture: Whether it is a company culture or group culture, teams who are united by a singular mission or set of values are often more motivated.
  • Responsibility and accountability: When teams share a set of values and goals, each team member can be held to the same standard.
  • Clear communication: Good teams brainstorm solutions, provide status updates and complete tasks.
  • An effective leader: Leaders who provide clear direction and encourage team members to succeed are typically managing successful teams.

Overall, the “Book of Five Rings” emphasizes the importance of preparation, continuous improvement, balance, understanding your competition, maintaining a flexible strategy, and cultivating a strong team, all of which are valuable lessons that businesses can apply to achieve success. Several books have been written on the topic and I encourage you to read further and learn what lessons past masters can still teach us today.

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” ― Jack Welch