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Run Away


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Run Away

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 36

This group: Stratagems for Desperate Straits
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When all else fails, retreat. Get out while you can. You may lose some dignity, but you will life to fight again.

Always keep open a path for retreat and watch for the enemy encircling you, ambushing your or otherwise cutting off your way out.

Remember that your goal is to win the war, not every battle and engagement. Strategic retreat is a normal pattern in warfare and can be used to good effect, for example in luring enemies into ambush or confusing them about your intent or ability.

Running requires speed. When you have to leave quickly, ensure you have appropriate means of transport to get you out of there faster than the enemy can catch you. A hasty retreat is often more effective if it is already planned and resourced.

When you have retreated, rebuild your forces and watch for an appropriate moment in which a return to the fray could be more successful.

If you are unable to retreat and you truly have no other options, it may be better to concede than fight to the death.


This is the thirty-sixth stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems for Desperate Straits

Alternative names


If All Else Fails, Retreat

Know When it is Best to Run

Or even:

He Who Runs Away Today Lives to Fight Another Day

Don't Fight a Losing Battle 


In attempting to unify China, Zhuge Liang of Shu made six forays against the more powerful Wei. None were successful, though he managed each time to get his 100,000 or so troops out without significant loss, including returning over the steep Qinling mountains. One of the methods he used to give himself space was to 'thrust a spear from the rear of the horse', which involved a rapid attack followed by an equally rapid retreat, leaving the enemy forces uncertain what was happening and so pausing and giving Liang time to get away.

History is full of stories of armies who did not run away, and in doing so lost their war.


Knowing when to run away is an important ability, as if you leave it too late you may be captured or slaughtered. A good time is when you are facing a much bigger force and where your avenue of retreat is being threatened.

It is not cowardice to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, or even when there is an uncomfortable chance of you being defeated. Retreat is better than surrender, as giving in means you have lost the war and your forces may yet suffer.

A consideration when retreating is what may be left behind and how to make these unusable for the other side. Booby traps and other explosives may also be set to slow down pursuing forces.

The best wars are those in which there is little actual fighting. Moving troops can be like a game of chess, where a good position will cause the enemy to concede or leave. Retreat is just another maneuver.

In business, it is sometimes appropriate to exit markets you have entered with high previous hopes. You may find you have not understood customers or underestimated local competition. At some point you may realize that you are throwing good money after bad, with little chance of real success. This is a good time to get out.

A successful business strategy can be to make rapid forays into markets to test ideas and equally rapid exits when things do not work. In this way, much can be tried at minimized cost.

A trap that keeps people in a market too long is the 'sunk cost effect', where the thought of losing money already spent keeps companies in unsuccessful ventures when they should really be looking only at future costs and returns.

See also

Speed in war


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