Sun Tzu’s Five Trait Model of Character by Shawn Frost

Sun Tzu’s Five Trait Model of Character">

Editor's Note: The following is the abstract and one part of our Master Trainer Shawn Frost's thesis, Sun Tzu and Trait Theory. The second half of this paper will be next Strategy Journals.


This article will investigate the essential trait theory of leadership through the lens of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Although it was recorded 2500 years ago, this classic of leadership and strategy remains a business best-seller and is the first tome detailing the traits of a leader as well as a prescription for utilizing these personality traits for competitive advantage that depend upon the follower and the situation. Understanding Sun Tzu’s trait theory will inform the modern “big five” theory of personality. As leaders form one leg of the leader, follower, situation triad; it is reasonable to investigate the personality of the leader for organizational advantage in competitive environments such as a free market. As leaders are charged with “the process of influencing an organized group toward accomplishing its goals.” (Roach and Behling (1984) it is useful to understand the leader’s traits. Understanding ourselves as leaders and the traits of leaders in competitive markets will inform this success. The focus of this article is the leader although key aspects of followers and the situation are addressed in example of how the leaders traits influence these factors. The Sun Tzu model of leadership includes a Five-Trait analysis with specific instructions for differentiating leadership behaviors for specific followers in specific situations. There are elements of Situational and Transformational leadership in this leadership manual written over 2500 years ago by perhaps the first leadership consultant in recorded history.

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.

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).

The second half and conclusions will be offered in the next Strategy Journal.

Copyright 2008, Science of Strategy Institute, Gary Gagliardi, all right reserved.

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