Sun Tzu Art of War – Five Essential Characteristics of a Manager

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Generals must be assessed according to the following characteristics: wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage and disciplined. – Chapter 1, Sun Tzu Art of War.

From the above you can see that the five characteristics that is required of a general by Sun Tzu are wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage and discipline. Let’s have a look at how to apply this knowledge into business.

Business Application


So what does wisdom means to management? It means that the manager is able to make wise decision quick and correctly most of the time. He would able to learn from mistakes if he made a wrong decision. He is able to strategise and take advantage of rising opportunity and avoid unnecessary dangers.


Trustworthiness means that what the manager promises must be carried out, in the process creating trust with his team members. We all know that once a general has the trust of his army, he is able to unite his army against their enemies. This applies to managers as well. If a manager could not reward as promised, it is likely that his team member would not put in their best since they have no idea whether they would be rewarded or not. Same thing for punishment, if certain rules are set out but team members who flout it are not punished, it would create chaos in the company’s organization and structure.


Benevolence is understanding, accommodating and love for his team members. On how to take care of his army, Sun Tzu mentions it in Chapter 10. But one must note that too much benevolence could spoil the army, making them too comfortable, thus sapping their fighting spirit. That is why Sun Tzu also advocates measuring the generals’ discipline as well. Discipline would counterbalance the characteristic of benevolence.


Courage as most of us may know is what brave generals must have. He must be able to face dangers with his army. What would his army think of him if he is the first to flee away from danger, leaving his army to face it instead? In business, the manager should be able to face the mistakes that are made under his department because at the end of the day, he is responsible for what is going on in the department.

There is also another aspect where we must see courage as well and that is the courage to make unfavorable or unpopular decisions. If the manager lacks courage in the form of making difficult decision, he would be leading his team member to ‘slow death’ because most of the time these unfavorable decisions can avoid short-term pain but causes huge damage that is accumulated in the long run.


Discipline, as I mentioned just now, is to balance the benevolence of the general. With discipline, he would be able to deploy his army and execute his plan effectively and efficiently. He himself must have great self-discipline, to set a good example to his army, gaining trust in the process as well. But again, too much discipline may cause the general to be seen as a tyrant in the eyes of his armies. This applies to the manager as well. A manager’s benevolence should be balanced by his discipline on his team members.

We all know that this list is not exhaustive but Sun Tzu must have thought these are the five most important characteristics a general, or in the business world, a leader should have. Notice besides wisdom, the other four characteristics has to do with soft skills like Emotional Quotient and Adversity Quotient. We can see from here, from ancient history, great importance has been place on soft skills or what we call in this new century, ‘people’ skill.

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