The Art of Leadership

9 min readMay 19, 2016


If Sun Tzu were alive today, he would tell business leaders to roll up their sleeves and do some very hard work.

Talk about leadership is everywhere. Business schools, bloggers, pundits and leaders themselves are all obsessed with the topic. Apparently we all agree that leadership is the vital ingredient in the success of an enterprise.

We cannot, however, agree what leadership actually IS.

Sun Tzu: if he were alive today he’d be Bill Gates, apparently

War and Business

Perhaps this is why so many executives and business school teachers look to the example of military leadership when developing a theory to guide practice “in the boardroom”. Works on Great Generals of history abound on school reading lists and CEO bookshelves, as do famous works on strategy by great military thinkers. Among the most famous, and certainly the most often quoted, is The Art of War by the semi-legendary classical Chinese theorist Sun Tzu.

Nobody seems to doubt the indispensable role of generalship on the battlefield, although it is far from clear why the lessons of war should be thought to translate to business.

In an amusing thought piece in the Huffington Post, Gregory Beyer explores the popularity not only of Sun Tzu’s original book, but also of a seemingly-endless procession of derivative works. He mentions Sun Tzu: Strategies for Marketing — 12 Essential Principles for Winning the War for Customers, Sun Tzu For Success: How to Use the Art of War to Master Challenges and Accomplish the Important Goals in Your Life, and The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu’s Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work. To this we can add such outré efforts as Sun Tzu and the Art of Estate Tax Planning and Sun Tzu and the Art of War Applied to Portfolio and Risk Management.

Among a list of ten good reasons for the work’s enduring popularity with business leaders (including “it’s short”, “it checks the ‘thinking outside the box’ box” and “our workplaces are already saturated with the language of violence”), Beyer postulates that current and aspiring CEO’s love it because it “supports a ‘Great Man’ theory of success”.

He might be on to something with that one. The Great Man Theory is a (for the most part) discredited approach to writing history. But it is easy to understand why leaders might still like it. For one thing it certainly supports the growth of C-suite remuneration, and it wouldn’t be bad for the ego either.

Leadership as Moral Heroism

All joking aside, current business leadership thinking is tainted with more than a little of the Great Man approach.

In an attempt to understand the concept of “leadership” experts have focussed heavily on the qualities of the leader and how those qualities are embodied in their behaviour. From a philosophical viewpoint this looks a lot like a virtue-based form of ethics (popular since the days of Aristotle in Classical Athens), in which what is “good” is understood solely as what a good person would do.

A focus on the individual is perhaps inevitable if one is convinced of an absolute distinction between “management” on the one hand and “leadership” on the other. (At CapabilityBuilder we think the distinction is useful, but only if treated with care.) If leadership isn’t management, then it must be something to do with behaviour. Once this line of reasoning gets going, it makes sense to study biographies of great leaders, and to distil lists of virtues aspiring leaders should try to cultivate.

The popularity of lists of “leadership styles” is a symptom of the same tendency. These supposed styles are based on forms of behaviour, and reflect different virtues (such as courage, imagination, humility and generosity). According to this way of thinking, leaders lead by taking risks, showing initiative, generating new ideas, giving to others to support their success, or generally inspiring others by their example.

While there is a lot of truth to the idea that you should “be the change you want to see” and walk what you talk, defining leadership as anything except managing is a gross over-simplification that ignores the advice contained in the very books leaders love to reference.

Sun Tzu: Management Guru

The Art of War does contain firm advice on the personal qualities of a general. Sun Tzu lists five virtues of a great general: wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness. To these he later adds flexibility (“avail yourself of any helpful circumstances”), energy (“though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays”), and thrift.

Perhaps more usefully, the master also describes five “dangerous faults”, including recklessness, cowardice, a “hasty temper” that is easily provoked, “delicacy of honour” and over-solicitude for those under one’s command. Given the attention paid elsewhere in the book to the care and motivation of soldiers, this last item can be best understood as an early version of “you can be their boss or their friend, but not both”.

However, the nine paragraphs dealing with the general’s character make up just 2.39% of the book’s 385 stanzas.

Naturally a large proportion of the Art of War consists of tactical advice one would have to work hard to translate into modern business practice, such as the best ways to use fire and the importance of positioning one’s boats upriver of the enemy. Some of this tactical insight is useful. For example, ensuring that risks are taken only when essential, and focussing on the conditions for success before embarking on any endeavour. Most of all, Sun Tzu is certain that success depends on attention to the right details, careful management of resources, and having the best possible information on which to base strategic decisions.

The bulk of the useable advice in the book concerns what we might call “strategic management”. Sun Tzu focuses on this because:

“In war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory”.

In other words, a battle is won or lost before it is fought. The best tactics and greatest courage will be useless if the army is not well-prepared or the battle is fought on the enemy’s terms.

A fresh reading of The Art of War reveals that a great leader must possess many virtues, but leadership is also much more than character. Above all a good leader must be willing to manage the enterprise skilfully, focusing on the development of strategy, and translating this into the marshalling and preparation of the necessary resources to carry it out. Leadership is not wholly distinct from management at all, but it does involve managing in the right way.

Strategic Management: Seven Considerations

In the 13th paragraph of the first chapter, Sun Tzu summarises seven considerations that he claims dictate victory or defeat in war, and which will allow a master strategist to predict the outcome of a war before battle is even joined. They are:

  • Which sovereign is imbued with the Moral Law?
  • Which general has the most ability?
  • With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth?
  • On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
  • Which army is stronger?
  • On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  • In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

Sun Tzu defines the Moral Law as good rulership, in which the people are “in accord” with the ruler. If a country is well-governed, the interests of the people are promoted by their government, and so the interests of ruler and ruled alike are at stake in war. As a result soldiers will willingly risk their lives for the state. A modern leader can take this advice to heart by asking whether the success of the enterprise they lead also helps their people succeed. If so, people will happily work hard for the collective good. If not, employees will show up for their pay cheque and nothing more.

Naturally, ensuring that everyone shares in the financial success of the business is important. However motivation also comes from articulating a mission that people can believe in (provided the mission is reflected in everything the company and its leaders do, and thus isn’t just empty rhetoric). Success can also be realised through opportunities for promotion and other kinds of professional growth.

The ability of a leader is obviously important, and leaders must ensure they have the skills, industry knowledge and personal qualities essential for success. Never expect your people to do anything you won’t do yourself. This includes constant professional development.

The advantages of Heaven and Earth are the conditions within which a strategy is to be executed. In war this means things like terrain, weather, transport networks and secure bases. In business they refer to market conditions, the relative strengths of competitors, opportunities for disruption, and avenues for bringing innovations to market in unexpected ways. In war a clever general doesn’t waste his strength attacking an enemy who is well entrenched in difficult country, but moves swiftly around the enemy to attack them where they are weak. In business a clever strategist looks for vulnerabilities, underserved market segments, and new ways to reach the market to avoid the strengths of established competitors.

Military discipline was brutal in Sun Tzu’s time, including the regular lopping off of heads. This may be a little extreme for modern business, but leaders should still take care to ensure that codes of conduct and legal standards are enforced fairly, consistently and visibly. Letting misconduct slide starts you on a slippery slope to employee cynicism, disengagement and even corruption.

The Master includes relative strength in his list of considerations, but this should not be understood to mean that victory always goes to the larger or more powerful side. Strength is a function of numbers, but also of skill, motivation and strategy. However, a leader is obliged to know the risks of competition, and should actively seek out the most advantageous circumstances, perhaps avoiding direct competition with established and well-resourced competitors, and look instead for new or under-serviced markets to attack.

Training is vital to success. Ensuring people can do what is required of them, and do it well, is the difference between victory and defeat. Indeed a small number of highly-motivated and highly-skilled people executing a good strategy will prevail over large numbers of people who are burning money without result because they are poorly-directed and under-skilled.

Consistency of rewards as well as punishments is perhaps the most important advice in the whole list. Morale will be destroyed quickly if people cannot understand why some people get bonuses and promotions, or why some people get let go. It will erode even faster if people think they do understand and see the distribution as unfair.

Consider how and why you distribute rewards. Ensure that your processes are well-understood and their functioning is visible. Ensure incentives are shared, so that everyone has a stake in your success.

If you insist on using performance-based pay, make sure that everyone knows how the bonuses are calculated, has a chance to achieve, and can see that everyone got their fair share. Unfortunately this is a time consuming activity, and is rarely done well. Many employees complain that performance processes are opaque and arbitrary. As a leader, fixing these processes will be among the most important things you do.

Leading and Managing

If Sun Tzu is right and the greatest leaders are in fact “strategic managers”, then the often-repeated aphorism that “leadership is not managing” is false.

Leadership is managing in the right way.

It is not micro-management. Sun Tzu is adamant that delegation is essential to success. The general receives a commission from the king, and thereafter should not allow the monarch to interfere in his strategy. In the same vein, it is the general’s job to ensure that right people are placed in command at every level, so he can let them do their jobs.

Leadership is also not simply “doing the vision thing”. It is not enough to describe inspiring goals and “lead by example”.

Great leaders roll up their sleeves and do some very hard work.

They must be able to articulate clear goals that describe not just what will be achieved, but why these things matter. They must also understand the conditions under which the enterprise operates and work out how the goals can be achieved under those conditions for the smallest outlay of resources and lowest risk.

The strategy thus developed should maximise the chances of success, and explain clearly how every part of the business and each person contributes to it.

Most of all, the great leader invests most of his or her time in developing their people’s skills, ensuring that every employee is committed to shared success, and identifying and deploying talent where it can flourish and make the best possible contribution.

Great strategic management might not be heroic, but it works.

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Originally published at on May 19, 2016.




Capability Builder provides software and professional development to streamline people management processes and build the confidence and capability of teams

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