Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Leadership (English)

31st International Conference on Organizational Science Development


March 21st – 23rd 2012, Portorož, Slovenia

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Leadership

Vlado Dimovski

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Economics, Slovenia

Marko Ferjan

University of Maribor, Faculty of Organizational Sciences, Slovenia

Miha Marič

University of Maribor, Faculty of Organizational Sciences, Slovenia

Miha Uhan

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Economics, Slovenia

Matej Černe

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Economics, Slovenia

Judita Peterlin

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Economics, Slovenia


The Art of War written by Sun Tzu is one of those books that could be classified in
the genre of pop-culture. Although its content used to be considered as a carefully
protected state secret in the past, it is now available to everyone. Its use has in the
past century moved from warfare also to other areas of human activity. Strategic
advices that it contains can be used in many more areas than just the conduct in the
times of war. In fact, the success in wars, as well as in business, of course, depends
on leadership. 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 addition, this wisdom is now being examined and used by senior
executives from all around the world, especially in Asia, because it can be utilized in
many business and political situations. The Chinese classic “The Art of War” is still
considered as one of the most influential and important works on strategy.

Keywords: Sun Tzu, leadership, organization

1 Introduction

In 500 B.C. probably the most renowned and revered ancient general in the world today (Low
and Tan, 1995) – Sun Tzu – wrote the highly influential book The Art of War, which offered
a framework for waging war and valuable observations on the nature of battle. The Art of War
has been very influential in Chinese political and military history and there is evidence that it
has influenced the thinking and practice of political and military leaders in modern China (e.g.
Mao’s guerrilla war), Japan, and the West (Cleary, 2000; Griffith, 1971; Lord, 2000). So
important was this text that over the millennia it’s been translated into many languages,
updated and adapted to describe everything from politics to business. Indeed, Carl von
Clausewitz (1968), the famous Prussian military theorist and author of the classic On War
noted that business was a form of human competition that greatly resembled war. Within the
field of business studies, The Art of War has been applied to the areas such as strategic
management (Tung, 1994; Boar, 1995; Rarick, 1996; Lee, Roberts, Lau, & Bhattacharyya,
1998; Marber, Kooros, Wright, and Wellen, 2002; Wu, Chou, and Wu, 2004), project
management (Pheng and Chuvessiriporn, 1997; Hawkins and Rajagopal, 2005), security
management (Watson, 2007), innovation management (Martin, 2009; Foo, 2011), patent
management (Lo, Ho, & Sculli, 1998; Wanetick, 2010), quality management (Pheng and
Hong, 2005), change management (Fernandez, 2004), human resource management (Wee,
2000; Lamond and Zheng, 2010), organizational behavior (Ko, 2003; Ahlstrom, Lamond, &
Ding, 2009), marketing (Low and Tan, 1995; Ho and Choi, 1997; Michealson and
Michealson, 2003; Gagliardi, 2004), e-commerce (McCarthy, 2001), management education
(McCallum, 1998; Li and van Baalen, 2007), leadership (Chen and Lee, 2008; Hee and Gurd,
2010; Reichard and Johnson, 2011), negotiation (Fang, 2006), international business (Wong,
Maher, & Lee, 1998), and the newly emerging discipline of systems engineering (Foo, 2008;
Foo, 2009). This ancient classic has also been applied to such unexpected areas as
construction industry (Pheng and Fang, 2005; Pheng and Hong, 2005), writing (Bell, 2009),
patient care (Tremayne, 2008), rhetoric (Combs, 2005), personal success (Michealson and
Michealson, 2003), and even dating (Rogell, 2011).

We study the Art of War from a leadership perspective. Following Chen and Lee (2008, p.
143), we study how, in the view of Sun Tzu, military commanders exercise strategic
situationalism to lead an army to victory. We identify the positive and negative attributes of a
leader in relation to strategic leadership. Furthermore, we elaborate Sun Tzu’s strategic
situationalism into (a) creating positional advantage in the environment, (b) creating
organizational advantage within the organization, (c) building morale within the troops, and
(d) leveraging and adapting to situations. Finally we discuss theoretical and practical
implications of Sun Tzu’s strategic leadership theory in a global environment.

2 Sun Tzu’s Strategic Leadership

Based on the Sun Tzu’s views on warfare and his prescriptions to the focal commander on
how to achieve organizational outcomes through strategic maneuver on the key elements of an
organized action, we frame Sun Tzu’s philosophy in terms of strategic leadership, following
Chen and Lee (2008, p. 153). While paying attention to ways of organizing, developing, and
motivating a highly effective organization we 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 taken by theories of leadership such as the situational theory (Hersey

and Blanchard, 1981, 1993), the path–goal theory (House, 1971), and the LMX theory (Liden
and Graen, 1980).

Sun Tzu’s adherence to the holistic approach to warfare makes his leadership theory
fundamentally situational. 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 organization (the quality of the leader and the condition of the army). Because of his
situational views of individual psychology and organizational 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. This is what Chen and
Lee (2008, p. 158) call strategic situationalism. We depict the strategic situationalism model
in Figure 1, in which the first component describes attributes of the leader, which enable
strategic leadership activities to affect the situation and the followers, which in turn lead to
success. Solid lines in the Figure 1 refer to causal relationships on which Sun Tzu focused;
dotted lines are possible but obscure causal relationships.

Figure 1: Sun Tzu’s model of strategic situationalism (Chen & Lee, 2008, p. 158)

3 Individual Attributes of the Strategic Leader

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

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, p. 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.

4 Strategic Situationalism

Key to Sun Tzu’s leadership theory is the Chinese concept of situation (shi), situation-making
(zhao shi), and situational adaptation (yin shi). The Chinese term shi has been translated into
English as force, position, power, or momentum. In the Art of war, Sun Tzu devoted one
chapter (Chapter 5, Wu, 2001) to the topic of shi. The purpose of strategies and tactics
regarding shi is to create a positive position (you shi) relative to an opponent, i.e. relative
advantage, and the more overwhelming the advantage, the greater the likelihood of swift and
complete victory. In the Art of war strategic situational advantage is further divided into
subtypes of advantage: positional (terrain), organizational, and morale/spirit (qi shi).

4.1 Positional Advantage

The most potent advantage according to Sun Tzu lies in placing the organization in an
advantageous position vis-a’-vis other organizations in a given field of operation. This
involves creating a strategically favorable environment for the organization. In the most basic
sense of the term, Sun Tzu refers to the positional advantage of terrain (di shi). Sun Tzu
emphasizes that it is far more effective for commanders to create situations (zhao shi) in
which troops are advantageously positioned and ready than to demand bravery and heroism
when faced with adversity. Strategic leadership should therefore pay more attention to
creating favorable situations than accepting and working within given situations. The former
requires strategic thinking, foreknowledge, and proactivity. However, positional advantage
seems to start with or boil down to advantage in knowing, especially in having information, as
can be seen in the great importance of “knowing yourself and knowing your enemy.”

4.2 Organizational Advantage

One of the five parameters of winning is the organization 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 Western science of management, especially in the essential managerial functions of
planning, organizing, 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 organizational 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).

4.3 Moral Advantage

Moral advantage refers to a psychological advantage, the degree of superiority of a troop over
its enemy in terms of a conviction of morality and efficacy and a determination to win victory
(Chapter 9, Wu, 2001). Officers should be benevolent but strict with the soldiers, gain their
loyalty, and have a harmonious relationship with them (Chapter 9, Wu, 2001). Such hard-soft
tactics reflect the Daoist way of thinking and are consistent with the paternalistic model. It
should be noted that in Sun Tzu’s strategic situationalism, morale is not merely a function of
internal subjective qualities of the organizational members. Organizational and positional
advantages outside the person are other ways of inducing psychological advantage.

4.4 Leveraging and Adaptation

While situation-making stresses creating favorable positional, organizational, and
psychological situations, taking advantage and adapting to existing situations is also part of
strategic situationalism, and this is closest to the contingency approach of leadership in the
West (Fiedler, 1977; Hersey and Blanchard, 1981). In Chinese, leveraging and adaptation are
called yin shi, literally meaning “following the situation.” Change of operations and tactics in
response to emergent situations is a major component of strategic leadership. The emergent
situations may present opportunities to be leveraged and constraints to be adapted to. Sun Tzu
likens the leader’s ability to change to a property of water; he asserts that as water changes its
course in accordance with the contours of the terrain so do commanders change their tactics in
accordance to the situation (Chapter 6, Wu, 2001). The variation and change of tactics are
based on understanding all aspects of the situation: the location, the time, the state and
condition of one’s own army versus those of the opponent’s.

5 Discussion and Conlusions

We present here the theoretical and practical implications of the Art of war in a global
context, following the thoughts of Chen and Lee (2008, p. 165) on this issue. What needs to
be emphasized first and foremost is Sun Tzu’s non-relational approach to leadership. Sun Tzu
is mostly concerned with the whole organization: its legitimacy, its systems of operation and
administration, the collective followership, or the unity and morale of the organizational
members. His unit of analysis and his target of leadership actions are more often than not at
the collective rather than the individual or the dyadic levels. His collectivity also tends to be at
the highest collectivity level, that is, the overall organization rather than its individual
divisions and subdivisions. Such an approach speaks to the Western literature on strategic
leadership (Boal and Hooijberg, 2001; Finkelstein and Hambrick, 1996) and contributes to it
by emphasizing the creation of external and internal winning environments. The system and
situational approach to leadership complements dyadic models of leader–member
relationships (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995).

Second, Sun Tzu’s theory of situationalism provides interesting critiques on the person-
situation debate in the organizational behavior literature and on cross-cultural research on
cognition. The person-situation debate centers on whether it is individuals’ stable internal
characteristics or the external situation that determine people’s behavior (Davis-Blake and
Pfeffer, 1989; Ross and Nisbett, 1991; Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). What we observe is that
while Sun Tzu does believe in the causal power of the situation he nevertheless also believes
in great leaders being masters of situation-making, situation manipulation, and situation

The third point of both theoretical and practical importance is Sun Tzu’s concept of wisdom.
We pointed out that the Chinese concept of wisdom or enlightenment bears some resemblance
to the concept of intelligence in Western psychology and leadership (Kirkpatrick and Locke,
1991). But there may be important differences. First, the Western concept of intelligence is a
personality trait that is largely hereditary and non-malleable whereas the Chinese concept of
wisdom is acquired through continuous study and practice. Second, the Chinese concept of
wisdom is also broader than managerial wisdom as conceived by Boal and Hooijberg (2001)
or job-related knowledge (Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991). Wisdom could very well be the key
leader characteristic that accounts for or moderates strategic situationalism.

Lastly, issues of ethics are becoming more salient as companies are facing greater global as
well as domestic competition. Sun Tzu’s infamous quote that “war is a game of deception”
(Chapter 1: 9, Wu, 2001) needs to be considered in its historical context as well as in the
context of war being ridden with conflict and violence. The question arises of whether, and, if
so, to what extent and on what bases, organizations and leaders may use deception or
information asymmetry in their transactions with their opponents or their employees.


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