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Art of war in business leadership

Just recently I had the pleasure of presenting the Art of War in Corporate Governance to a group of corporate executives at a local hotel.

People management issues with Robert Mandeya

The thrust of my presentation was inclined towards exploring the “art of war” from a leadership perspective. In particular, the presentation drew a closer connection to the context of general organisation and management from a principle basis.

The Art of War, written by the Chinese general and war leader Sun Tzu 2 500 years ago, still provide applicable lessons in today’s modern corporate and business world. Its use has in the past century moved from warfare also to other areas of human activity.

War and business

One very clear parallel from Sun Tzu’s, lessons is that the success in wars, just as in business, depends on leadership, which is why we identify the positive and negative attributes of a leader in relation to strategic leadership.

It therefore goes without saying that people are those who fight in battles and are also those who win them; and the most important person in every battle is the general. Historically, a number of successful military commanders ascribe the credit for their victories to Sun Tzu’s principles. In the business world, this wisdom is now being examined and used by senior executives from all around the world, because it can be utilised in many business and political situations.

Strategic leadership

The views on warfare as posited in Sun Tzu and his prescriptions to the focal commander on how to achieve organisational outcomes through strategic manoeuvre on the key elements of an organised action, holds true to how organisations either succeed or fail in achieving targeted goals. While paying attention to ways of organising, developing, and motivating a highly effective organisation, the “art of war” also highlight the importance of factors external to the leader–member relationship including the higher authority, the larger community, and alliances and enemies, and the immanent situational and contextual factors.

The term strategic leadership also suggests a system or institutional perspective as opposed to the supervisor–subordinate perspectives holistic approach to warfare vis-a-vis business approach.

Of the five determinants of a victory in war, three are external factors (the socio-political environment, the weather, and the terrain) and two are internal to the organisation (the quality of the leader and the condition of the army). Because of his situational views of individual psychology and organisational effectiveness, Sun Tzu believes strongly that success lies in the ability of the leader on the one hand to comprehend and appreciate the power of a situation and, on the other, to rise above the situation by creating, leveraging, and adapting to the existing and emergent environment.


The Art of War contains many descriptions of the attributes of a ideal leader. In describing an ideal sovereign, the most common terms Sun Tzu uses are humaneness (benevolence and righteousness) and enlightenment.

In describing an ideal general, Sun Tzu lists five attributes: wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage, and firmness (Chapter 1:5, Wu, 2001).

Wisdom appears to be the most important attribute of the strategic leader for Sun Tzu’s Art of War, as it is capable of incorporating courage, firmness or even benevolence and trustworthiness.

It is a much broader concept than intelligence as it refers to the acquisition of knowledge and skills through accumulation and the ability to fulfill one’s responsibility.

Five fatal flaws

Sun Tzu also lists five fatal flaws of a strategic leader that can bring calamity to the leader and the troops (Chapter 8, Wu, 2001). “Those who are ready to die can be killed; those who are intent on living can be captured; those who are quick to anger can be shamed; those who are puritanical can be disgraced; those who love people can be troubled” (Cleary, 2000: 135).

These are vulnerabilities of the leader that can be strategically exploited by the enemy in combat situations.

Although these have been typically viewed as character or trait flaws (e.g Griffith, 1971), they can also be viewed as cognitive and emotional errors committed in response to extremely turbulent and volatile situations.

Parameter of winning

One of the five parameters of winning is the organisation of the army, by which Sun Tzu refers to the unity of command, the consistent enforcement of rules and regulations, clear rewards and punishments, and the coordination of different parts of the army.

As an aside, it is amazing to discover how so many of Sun Tzu’s ideas on the science of war are reflected in the morden science of management, especially in the essential managerial functions of planning, organising, commanding, and controlling as proposed by Henri Fayol (1916), who wrote his book about two thousand years after the Art of war. There seems to be a paradox in Sun Tzu’s insistence on a rather rigid structure of unity of command and organisational discipline on one hand but flexibility, innovation, and variation of actions on the other.

Sun Tzu’s answer to the paradox lies in the leader’s strategic discretion (Hambrick and Finkelstein, 1987), as well as the leader’s ability to create and leverage situational and psychological advantages.

Sun Tzu believes that although the mandate is set from the top (which itself is subject to the criteria of righteousness and benevolence) subordinates should be fully empowered to execute the mandate without interference from above, especially when the higher authority has no full knowledge of the situation in the field (Chapter 10, Wu, 2001).

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.

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