Sun Tzu’s Leadership Model (Part 2 of 2) by Shawn Frost

(Completes the article first appearing in Issue 07)

Complimentary Opposites:

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 forces 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. (Gagliardi, 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.
The Followers:

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:

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.
The nine situations

The nine situations he describes are scattering, easy, disputed, open, intersecting, dangerous, bad (also ruined), confined (surrounded), and deadly (extremity) (Gagliardi, 2001, p. 143). Conflict within ones borders is scattering terrain. Easy terrain is found when one advances into new areas shallowly, such as in pilot testing. Disputed terrain is found when one has competition due to the terrain offering an obvious advantage. Open terrain is found when competitors and your organization can move swiftly and unobstructed to gain advantage; it offers a race. Intersecting terrain exists when the opportunity for alliances presents itself. Dangerous territory exists when we have advanced faster than our support, and our competitors are following closely. Bad terrain is identified by the erection of obstacles that keep occurring as surprises. Confined situations are when our chances for success become concentrated upon a few key people (expert power wielders) at times of critical transition. Deadly situations are exemplified by the need to act quickly at the peril of losing all of one’s resources (Gagliardi, 1999).

The Nine Remedies:

The nine remedies are intended to maintain control and keep the organization intact and avoid a spiral into chaos. In scattering terrain, the solution is to avoid battle or direct conflict; the key is negotiation and communication. In easy terrain, one should gather as many resources as long as the terrain remains easy. To maximize control in disputed terrain, you block your opponents without engaging in conflict. In open terrain you keep pace with competitors by shadowing. Intersecting terrain demands that one unite with allies as long as there is a shared goal and mutual benefit. Plundering from your competition’s resources controls dangerous terrain. Solve the concerns of bad terrain by remaining persistent and keeping your followers moving ahead. Confined terrain forces the leader to use surprise or innovation and stop information leaks. Control deadly terrain by fighting, and applying every available resource to move swiftly and let the followers know that this becomes a last stand. In deadly terrain he says that a leader must “Unite your men as one. Never let them give up.” (Gagliardi, 2001, p. 150). It is interesting to note that only the most desperate of situations guides the leader to engage in direct conflict, in a book titled The Art of War. Sun Tzu was very direct in his guidance to leaders: “Avoid conflict and make the enemies men surrender. This is the right goal for a superior leader.” (p. 42).
Modern implications:

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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Competitive Arenas: