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Probably the most used stratagem

The 36 stratagems - 3 - Kill with a borrowed knife

2022 April 07 | by Arduino Mancini Stratagems to succeed

The stratagem I’m going to present to you is from the book The 36 stratagems, a Chinese masterpiece that can be of interest to anyone involved in conflict situations: in business, politics and private life.


Description of the stratagem

The idea is to inflict damage on the enemy through a third party.

The stratagem is implemented by limiting the resources used to prevail over the opponent without exposure, thus limiting the risks; in essence, one hurts someone indirectly, without getting involved personally.

According to the traditional interpretation, the opponent is well identified but it is not clear whether he can really count on the one he considers to be an ally: then it is preferable to induce the ally (or supposed to be) to put the enemy out of action.

Its literal translation is the following:

Borrow a knife to kill a man. Kill with someone else’s knife.

The stratagem may be executed following different strategies:

  • eliminate an enemy by the hand of others (hitman stratagem), paying a reward;
  • in a conflict, working behind the lines to support the side opposing our enemy by providing the resources needed to prevail;
  • defeating the opponent using his weapons.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

The stratagem is included among those employed to achieve victory when circumstances are already favourable and/or when one is stronger than the opponent, limiting the energy employed to prevail.

The one who adopts this stratagem does not only intend to win but is determined to capitalize on all the advantages of the situation, putting the opponent definitively out of the game.


Key factors in the implementation of the stratagem

There are four crucial variables: scenario analysis, patience, dissimulation, and information dissemination.

The scenario analysis is essential since an incorrect evaluation could reveal the stratagem and compromise the final result; furthermore, as we shall see shortly, the detection of the weapons the opponent can use against himself may not be so easy and/or immediate.

The dissimulation of one’s intentions is indispensable for the outcome since our intent not to cause damage must be evident to the opponent and surprise be decisive.

Another crucial element is patience. The stratagem may take time between design and execution since the setting up for its implementation is unlikely to be immediate; the dissemination of information and simulation-induced analysis of the situation can take time, and the rush to achieve immediate results can be fatal.

The most critical aspect is perhaps the dissemination of information, which requires careful management; knowing how to spread false information perceived as true and confidential is an art that few can accomplish.


Historical example of application

At the time of the Spring and Autumn (722 BC to 481 BC), Huan, Duke of Zheng, decided to attack the State of Kuai to conquer it.

Before moving the army to Kuai, Huan decided to weaken his opponent’s defences by striking at the people who could generate solid resistance.

The Duke of Zheng gathered information about the most capable, loyal and brave army generals and officers and prepared a list containing their names. With the list in his hands, he declared that after conquering Kuai he would grant them land, wealth and prestigious offices.

To make the promise credible, he erected a massive altar outside the walls of Kuai, at the base of which he buried the list with the names and sacrificed animals to seal the commitment.

Since rumours spread very quickly and there was no shortage of spies in the Duke of Zheng’s army, the news quickly reached the Prince of Kuai, who was very upset. He feared that his most valuable officers might betray him and, in a moment of anger, he first imprisoned them on charges of treason and then publicly killed them.

On hearing the news, Huan attacked Kuai and prevailed with a limited effort due to the weak resistance offered.

The applications of the stratagem are countless in both the political and military spheres.

An interesting example is offered by Nazi Germany in its invasion of Norway during World War II.

The Germans had forged strong relations with the pro-Nazi party, the Nasjonal Samling, founded by Vidkun Quisling (a Norwegian army officer and politician).

Quisling facilitated the Nazi invasion in 1940, undermining his country’s resistance from within, before being appointed Prime Minister in 1942, after the Germans had come to power; he ran a puppet government until 1945 and supported the massacre of Jews during the Holocaust.

Quisling’s name is associated with one of the darkest periods in Norwegian history.

At the end of the war, Quisling was declared guilty of murder, treason and misappropriation; he was executed on 24 October 1945, in Oslo.


Modern examples of application

This stratagem is quite common in organisations, business, politics, war and organised crime; here are some examples.

Organisation context

It is employed when one intends to attack someone, limit his/her action or even expel him/her from the organisation while not taking the risks of the action.

One of the signals of the stratagem is the attempt to put a person in a negative light to generate the belief that his/her remaining in the organization is detrimental to the company’s interest.

The types of ” knives ” employed are different and here are some of them.

The spreading of information about the poor quality of the unfortunate person’s performance, using personal opinions as evidence that testify to his/her bad attitude towards the boss or the organisation as a whole; the lack of tolerance towards criticism, may induce the manager to remove the sources of dissent, limiting the action of the victim or even expelling him/her.

Often the knife is put in the hands of company consultants.

Sometimes they are specifically hired to confirm that a person or a group of people are useless (in other words, they do the dirty work); in other cases, they are used to deliver messages that could generate bad feelings.

Coaching professionals pay particular attention to this stratagem, as they may be offered assignments not aimed at performance improvement but at proving the inutility of the coachee.

The use of head-hunting companies, hired to offer professional opportunities to people the company wants to get rid of, is also widespread.

Organised crime

In this case, the use of the stratagem is quite common and takes the form of the so-called killer’s stratagem: one or more persons are hired to carry out criminal actions or demand payment of protection money.

The principal takes care to remain in the shadows and threatens anyone who might betray the secrecy of the assignment.

Military conflict

We have seen two examples of applications referring to ancient China and World War II.

Generally speaking, the stratagem is employed in supporting one of the parties in conflict to help it prevail over the second, which personifies the enemy it is intended to limit or eliminate.

The forms of this support can be the most diverse: money, technology, knowledge, military training, espionage, etc.


The application of stratagem in this context often has similar connotations to those seen in the case of military conflict.

However, I am pleased to note here an interesting and sophisticated application, which is not frequently employed due to the widespread habit of observing only negative behaviour in the opponent and carefully avoiding emphasising positive results.

It may happen that Mario’s initiatives, as a prominent member of the A-party, are publicly appreciated by one or more leaders of the B party; this circumstance, far from being welcomed, usually generates uncomfortable questions for the A-party members:

  • why do B’s leaders show appreciation for Mario?
  • Are there hidden links between Mario and the B leaders?
  • What is Mario secretly plotting against A?

The answers are hardly oriented to intelligent use of the stratagem by B’s leaders and end up instilling in A’s ranks mistrust towards Mario, quarrels and divisions; in essence, if you want to destroy your opponent embrace him.

Why is this tricky tactic not so often employed?

There are two main reasons for this:

  • the stratagem requires a certain sophistication, which is not common among politicians;
  • moreover, it would not be easily understood by the electorate, who might only grasp the more immediate aspect of appreciation.

Business management

Here again, there are a large number of possible applications, so I will limit the analysis to what I consider the most interesting and not so immediate: innovation related to products, services and solutions.

Market competition drives companies to continuously take inspiration from products put on the market by competitors to feed the innovation process and their competitive advantage, limiting the resources invested.

For example, smartphones are continuously evolving and companies regularly put on the market devices that perform better and better in all areas of use; each new product is carefully studied to identify areas of improvement to overcome and beat the competition with the next launch.

What happens in these cases is a systematic use of evolutive innovation for competitive purposes; manufacturers limit their investments by taking their ideas from what their competitors have launched on the market: everyone, in the end, employs their competitors’ weapons to win the market battle.


Strategies to face the stratagem

The complexity and variety of the implementation of the stratagem make it rather complex to indicate strategies to cope with its employment; however, it is possible to identify some essential points.

First of all, it is imperative to adopt an attitude that leads to an accurate analysis of the situations we are addressing; not falling victim to emotions and carefully analysing the options available are essential to identify who can strike using the knife of others.

On the organisational side, the defence may be based on a preventive strategy; periodically checking the perception of one’s own performance by the bosses (and not only…) will help to detect in time the warning signs and to identify the most suitable measures.

Careful attention should also be paid to the consultants and coaches the organisation may use; a thorough analysis of their CV and their personal history will help reduce the risk of falling victim to the stratagem. The following questions may help in the investigation:

  • Who is the coach/consultant that the company has engaged?
  • What is his/her story?
  • What can I expect from working together?
  • Do I know someone who can give me information about him/her?

Concerning the application of the stratagem in business management and innovation in particular, attacks by competitors can be contained with a strategy of the legal protection of intellectual property; the filing of trademarks and patents and the protection of intangible assets, in general, helps to blunt the knife of the competition and defend the competitive advantage.


A final thought

What can I say about this stratagem?

My sympathy is not with people who do not take responsibility for their own actions: but I am aware that ‘Killing with a borrowed knife’ can be a good defence even for those who prefer honesty and transparency.

In short, even if the systematic use of the stratagem is certainly not edifying, it is still convenient to know how to recognise it to deal with it successfully.

Or use it in extreme cases.

Now, think about your personal history:

  • Have you ever used the stratagem?
  • Has anyone ever used your knife to cause damage to others?
  • Have you ever been exposed to the stratagem?
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