The hardball manifesto was a main feature in the April Harvard Business review. It’s a call for companies to play it harder, to widen the gap between themselves and their competitors… relentlessly and ruthlessly. Hardball companies should strive for “extreme” competitive advantage: something that puts them totally out of the reach of their competitors.

According to the authors, Hardball is not about direct confrontation. They compare it to war: for a military force to be reasonably assured of success in a direct attack, its strength must be several times greater than its opponent’s. (sounds like something straight from Sun Tzu). So they need to outflank their competitors. To achieve competitive advantage and drive toward this extreme competitive advantage, hardball players must be “action oriented, constantly impatient with the status quo”, “playing the edges, probing that narrow strip of territory between the places where society clearly says you can play the game of business and those where society clearly says you can’t”. But hardball is not about breaking or bending, the law. It is not about crooked accounting, breaching contracts, stealing trade secrets, or predatory pricing. It’s not about being mean. It’s about being the best.

All of this reminds me of Sun Tzu’s Art of war, or the book “Marketing Warfare” (Ries & Trout) based on Von Clausewitz’ ideas where the principles of war are applied to the business world.

As Sun Tzu said it in the Art of War: “It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.“… So the question is: is this allright? Is it warranted for marketeers to play this hardball game? Do we all

have to become so ruthlessly adversarial? Can we survive if we’re all hardball players? You tell me.

(On a sidenote, there is one very wise lesson in the article: the bigger and more succesful hardball (and other) companies become, the more difficult it will be to keep their advantage over competitors and the bigger the danger that people become complacent. The article refers to what Kelleher – Southwest Founder – said in a letter to all employees in the early 1990s: “The number one threat is us (…) we must not let success breed complacency; cockiness; greediness;

laziness; indifference; preoccupation with nonessentials; bureaucracy; hierarchy; quarrelsomeness; or obliviousness to threats posed by the outside world.” All too often, we do become complacent.)