Sun Tzu on the art of leadership – qualities of a successful leader

Background to The Art of War

SUN TZU wrote The Art of War in approximately 490BC in the Kingdom of Wu, China, and became a general for the King of Wu in 512 BC. For the next 39 years his precepts were followed and the Kingdom of Wu was victorious. And then, they forgot … the armies of Wu were defeated and the Kingdom made extinct.

In 1782, The Art of War was first translated into French by a Jesuit, Father Amiot. There is a legend that it was Napoleon’s key to success and his secret weapon and the first English translation was produced by P.F. Calthrop in 1905.

In reading The Art of War I have tried to think about how Sun Tzu’s military principles provide a timeless guide to modern business leadership.

Dr. Foo Check Teck, Asia’s foremost expert on Sun Tzu, says, “I found many more CEO’s and entrepreneurs, especially those who had to compete at the edge, are unconsciously applying Sun Tzu’s ping-fa (Law of Soldiering).”

The essence of business, like war, is to pursue goals and achieve success (Dr. Raymond Yeh). Success, or even your proximity to success, can make you a target to those who oppose that success, however they might choose to fight you. That is why understanding Sun Tzu’s Art of War can prove advantageous to just about anyone (Robert L. Cantrell, consultant and author of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War).

I have summarised Sun Tzu’s principles into four simple categories:

  1. Qualities of a successful leader;
  2. Oranising your business affairs;
  3. Dealing with rivals; and
  4. Strategies for effective leadership.

If you’re interested in The Art of War and want to read more, check out both Sonshi.com and Wikipedia.

1. Qualities of a successful leader

1.1 Discipline

A leader must be disciplined. Having discipline includes maintaining the hierarchy within the organisation; clearly defining the specific roles and responsibilities of members of management; maintaining systems to ensure delivery of services by suppliers and payment from customers; and controlling expenditure.

I fully believe he was a good soldier, but I had him beheaded because he acted without orders.

1.2 Presence of mind

Presence of mind is the ability to stay calm and act sensibly in a crisis. This is a leader’s most important asset.

1.3 Self respect

If you do not respect yourself, your men will not respect you. If your men do not respect you, they will be unresponsive to orders and will delight in undermining your authority and reputation.

1.4 Wisdom, sincerity and good faith

If your decisions are well thought out and you act honestly, your men will trust you. If you are trusted, people will speak their mind freely and openly, which means business problems can be solved more quickly and effectively.

1.5 Prompt decision making

In a competitive business environment time is always of the essence. As such, a successful leader needs to make quick decisions.

…though we have heard of stupid haste in [business], cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.