Profile: Sun Tzu on Leadership

By | March 15, 2014

[March 15, 2014]  When I was growing up in the Deep South, I was exposed to a variety of community leaders and as successful as each was they displayed many recurring qualities that fascinated me.  Years later I realized some of those common traits were key to being a successful leader.  After reading the Art of War by Sun Tzu (孫子), as a young Army officer, I came to appreciate those traits. 

This leadership “profile” will differ from my other profiles because we know less about the man Sun Tzu  than about the leadership he espoused as a historian and philosopher. 

Sun Tzu is believed to have lived between 722 and 481 B.C., serving under the King of Wu (and others) in what is today modern China.  His successes in battle are the impetus for his famous book the Art of War1He discusses leadership from the most basic (tactical) to the most sophisticated (strategic). 

My personal favorite story Sun Tzu tells is about discipline.  He was challenged by the King of Shiji to demonstrate Sun Tzu’s famous reputation as a leader.  The king tested him by providing 180 of his concubines to be shown how to march in formation.  After the failure of them to obey commands, he had the leading two concubines (the king’s favorites) executed.  The concubine formation obeyed his commands thereafter. 

This tells us a lot about the man.  His most famous quote, translated of course, is: “know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”  Sun Tzu believed that knowing both assured victory.  While this applies directly to military action, it also is appropriately applied to businesses and to how we conduct ourselves in daily life. 

The best leaders know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and use this information to build teams and organizations around them – complimenting each other.  Knowing your “enemy’s” (i.e., competitors) strengths and weaknesses helps you by providing the advantage.

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.” – Sun Tzu 

We all have a lot to learn about leadership; in particular those of us in senior leader positions.  Sun Tzu, even after 2,500 years, is still providing us the opportunity to gain key insight into the common traits of great leaders. 


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[1]  The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC, during the spring and autumn period. . It is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy. It has had an influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond.




Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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