Sun Tzu on Leadership
While there has been a great deal of emphasis on the personality of the leader in modern leadership literature it is neither a new nor a novel idea. In fact, Master Sun or Sun Tzu described the five traits of an effective leader over 2500 years ago (Gagliardi, 1999). The Gagliardi translation of Sun Tzu’s “bing fa”, often translated as “Art of War”, outlines the traits of the effective leader as well as informing the reader of the “dark side” traits of leadership that one must avoid. When one adds the dimensions of the follower and the situation to the leadership equation, the Art of War becomes a handbook for leadership. It is believed that this was his intention in creating this document that has turned up in numerous tombs in consistently copied versions (Gagliardi, 2001).
Focus on the leader’s personality
The traits of a leader have been the source of investigation for generations. As these investigations parallel the study of personality in psychology it is useful to understand the direction of research in this field. Personality has been investigated from the view of a many trait approach, a single trait approach, an essential trait approach and a typological approach (Funder, 2004). Most modern models resort to some version of the “big-five” essential trait approach (p. 167).
Western “Big-Five” models of personality
The Big Five essential personality traits are: “extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness.” (Funder, 2004, p. 167) and have been used in numerous recent leadership investigations. Topics of investigation include: the leader’s traits effects on project management (Ghering, 2007), the big-five and transformational leadership (Judge & Bono, 2000), typical and maximal performance rating and five-factor model influences (Ployhart, Lim, & Chan, 2001) and have even focused on cross-cultural influence of five-factor trait models and transformational leadership (Lian, 2002). The big five are firmly established in the literature as the dominant means of assessing dimensions of a leader’s personality.
Sun Tzu in the East:
The general Sun Wu lived in the “Spring and Autumn” era, around 500 BC, in what would eventually become China. During this period of strife, China was a system of warring city-states that was not united (Gagliardi, 2004). He was a military general and one of the first consultants in recorded history hired by the king of Wu, an unsuccessful province, with the expressed goal of enhancing the economic situation of the kingdom. Sun Wu helped advance the city-state and unified the Yang Tze river valley under the leadership of the king of Wu. For his efforts he was granted the title of Master translated as Tzu becoming Sun Tzu (Master Sun). His book the Art of War has become the definitive tome for advancing in competitive environments (Gagliardi, 2001). It was a descendant of Sun Tzu’s, Sun Ping, that is credited with uniting China into an empire that lasted for over 2000 years by using the principles outlined in the Art of War (Gagliardi, 1999).
Sun Tzu in the west:
A French Missionary named Amiot is credited with translating The Art of War into French in 1722 where it eventually fell into the hands of a young Corporal named Napoleon Bonaparte. He followed the principles explicitly, other than his defeat at Waterloo, to build a tremendous empire (Gagliardi, 1999). It was not translated into English until around 1910, but has only been a mainstay of business strategy since the 1972 Taipei version with many adaptations being made specifically for the business community (Gagliardi, 1999). The use of it explicitly as a leadership development manual has not been investigated, which is curious as this was clearly the intent of the document in Sun Tzu’s time. The book does offer an essential trait theory of leadership personality with clear guidelines for leadership behavior adapted to the situation and follower.
Five element model
Sun Tzu in chapter 1 paragraph 1 of the Art of War defines five elements that are crucial to the success of an organization in competitive situations. These five elements include an understanding of: the climate (Tian), ground (Di), methods (Fa), philosophy/ culture (Tao), and the leader (Jiang) (Gagliardi, 2001). The first four deal with the situation and the follower, but the fifth element deals specifically with the commander or leader. Sun Tzu further identifies the five characteristics of a leader as one who “must be smart, trustworthy, caring, brave, and strict” (p. 22). These traits form what could be called Sun Tzu’s five factor model.
Sun Tzu’s Five Trait Model
Smart / Intelligence
Sun Tzu felt this was important as the intelligence and analytical abilities of the leader were essential to developing certain skills. The key skill indicated by this ability is the ability to read the terrain (Gagliardi, 1999). An intelligent leader understands where the terrain provides the best opportunities( Gagliardi, 2001). The intelligent commander is able to rightly understand the competitor’s leader, and to use the appropriate technique in gaining advantage. The most often quoted phrase of Sun Tzu: “ Know yourself and know your enemy. You will be safe in every battle.” (p. 48). Intelligence is often stressed in modern leadership research as well.
While it is often translated that all of “warfare is one thing. It is the art of deception.” (Gagliardi, p. 23) Sun Tzu holds trustworthiness as a necessary trait for the effective leader. The word deception is better translated as secrecy. Within a unit, he feels that you “must inspire your men’s devotion” (p. 131). Sun Tzu also thought that a follower “must never fear danger or dishonesty” (p. 17). This trustworthiness could be the opposite of neuroticism or synonymous with the modern trait of agreeableness. This trait is indicative of effective transformational leadership (Hartman, 1999). These personality traits surrounding values such as trustworthiness remain important. As one researcher notes: “the combination of a vibrant personality and good values is almost unbeatable; people will follow you anywhere.” (Friedman, 2001, p. 7). Sun Tzu said that one could lead people to their death only if the leader first earned their trust and got the follower to share the leader’s vision (Gagliardi, 2004).
Sun Tzu also recommended the leader care for his soldiers. He even suggested that the leader should “Preserve your troops…treat them as your beloved children” (Gagliardi, 1999, p. 113). The modern analogue would be extraversion. Modern research bears this out (Hartman, 1999).
“Personality traits found to be especially relevant for leadership effectiveness include high energy and stress tolerance, self-confidence, internal locus of control, emotional maturity, personal integrity, socialized power motivation and high achievement orientation…. One personality characteristic alone – lack of sufficient warmth- determines whether any of the other characteristics will be a liability rather than an asset for leader effectiveness.” (pp 31-33).
Sun Tzu offers his agreement from 2500 years ago. He urges a leader to “Take care of your men and do not overtax them. Your esprit de corps increases your momentum.” (Gagliardi, 1999, p. 123). This sounds suspiciously like a transformational leadership quality of creating a vision.
Courage / Braveness
Sun Tzu suggests that the leader should be courageous for obvious reasons. He suggests the leader behavior “The government may order you to fight. Despite that, you must avoid battle when you will lose.” (Gagliardi, 1999, p. 111). This requires great courage. He also says “military officers that are committed lose their fear.” (p. 123). The modern equivalent could be “openness to experience”. This personality trait is key to using feedback from subordinates to improve one’s performance (Smither, London, & Richmond; 2005).
Strictness / Discipline
Sun Tzu, as a military leader, extols this trait as essential.
“ We must be willing to do the unpleasant parts of the job as well as the fun parts. We must honor our agreements scrupulously. People must be able to depend on us. If we are not reliable, no one will support us for long” (Gagliardi, 2004, p. 45). This is similar to the Big Five trait of conscientiousness. This trait was discovered to be positively correlated with the use of feedback provided to leaders (Smither, et Al., 2005).
To understand the appraisal of a leader within the context of Sun Tzu’s five-trait-model of leadership, one must understand the Taoist concept of complimentary opposites. There are two aspects of a combined force at work: the Yin and Yang. Neither is inherently right or wrong, but they exist in unison to varying degrees. These two forces are aspects of a shared force the Tao, or way (Ball, 2004). The concept of leadership and the traits can be understood through a similar manner. Emptiness gives rise to fullness, and vice-versa. (Galgliardi, 2001). Each of the aforementioned strengths of a leader, are described later in the Art of War as weaknesses when they exist in over abundance. Chinese Medicine views these “concentrations” as a source of pathology. (Ball, 2004). The same could be described as dark-side characteristics, or weaknesses, of leaders.
Dark-side Traits of Leadership:
The dark-side traits of leaders are described by Sun Tzu in the prescription for “killing the opposing general”. He sees intelligence becoming paralysis or scattering one’s resources which leads to capture. The leader who is very caring can be influenced by his troops. This was also seen in modern research when the influence tactics of followers were investigated (Cable and Judge, 2003). Sun Tzu cautions that “Some leaders are generous but cannot use their men. They love their men but cannot command them… These leaders create spoiled children. Their soldiers are useless.” (Gagliardi, 2001, p. 134). The third dark-side trait arises from trustworthiness. If a leader has “a delicate sense of honor” (p.102) he can be disgraced easily and goaded into unwise competition. Courage out of control becomes fearlessness and recklessness. Strictness to excess becomes debilitating inflexibility. Sun Tzu urges the leader to be adaptive. He says that the opportunity for victory comes from seeing opportunity within the environment; overly rigid leaders do not see novel opportunities.
Sun Tzu may have influenced the Situational Leadership Theory. The two share prescriptions for each type of follower. Master Sun wrote: “With new, undedicated soldiers, you can depend on them if you discipline them well.” (Gagliardi, 1999, p. 101). He recommended a different approach for seasoned, motivated soldiers. He said they could be depended upon but a leader must “avoid disciplining them without reason.” (p. 101). He suggested that a leader should control his people through training and enhancing esprit de corps. He also indicated a leader must “make it easy for people to know what to do” (p. 101). He advised leaders that it was not sufficient to demand performance from one’s followers. Instead, he urged, a leader must “pick good people and give them momentum” (p. 57).
The Situation plays heavily into Sun Tzu’s model of Leadership. The situation or the position is where the strength of the leader’s organization is derived. He suggests that knowing oneself as a leader and our opponents is a necessary but insufficient condition for victory. He says: “ Know the enemy and know yourself. Your victory will be painless. Know the weather and know the field [two elements of the situation]. Your victory will be complete.” (Gagliardi, 1999, p. 115). Sun Tzu goes forward to describe nine types of situations and prescribes the solutions for leading through these situations which are the topic for another day.
Trait theories of leadership alone have largely been supplanted, by behavioral models but have seen a re-emergence in the context of the traits of a transformational leader (Hautala, 2005; Judge & Bono, 2005; Lian, 2002; Havaleschka, 1999). The personality also seems to come to rise for concerns of multi-rater performance evaluations (Ployhart, Lim, & 2001; Smither et Al. 2005; The Harvard Business Review, 1996). The implications of better understanding the leadership patterns found in Chinese culture are also obvious given the economic and military strength possessed by this country.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War forms the basis for the first recorded Trait-theory of leadership. The traits of intelligence, courage, trustworthiness, caring and discipline closely mirror those offered by the modern Big Five trait theory of personality analysis. The case could also be argued that this 2500-year-old text could form the basis for a primitive system of situational leadership. The specific treatment of different followers in different situations also validates this hypothesis. There are also surprising nuances of transformational leadership found in this model that remain the subject of research in the modern leadership literature. Sun Tzu proposed that everything moved in cycles and the findings of this investigation support this position.
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