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Sun Tzu’s 5 fatal leadership flaws

Dec 14, 2007 Business Daily, Leadership

“There are five character flaws that are dangerous for a general. If he is reckless, his men can be killed. If he is cowardly, his army can be captured. If he is short-tempered, he will react in anger. If he is self-important, he can be deceived. If he is attached to his men, he will hesitate at a crucial moment. These five flaws are certainly unfortunate for a general because they cause great destruction in war. These five flaws cause generals to fail and armies to die. Consider them well.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (c. 480 BCE)

This translation is from The Art of War for Executives, by Donald G. Krause. These very wise words were written in China twenty-five centuries ago. They remain utterly relevant to corporate Kenya in 2007.

A reckless boss will expose his people to unnecessary danger. In the business world, as opposed to the military battleground, that danger is not necessarily to life and limb. It is rather the danger of career damage, of failure, of rejection by customers and peers. Irresponsible bosses make too many wild bets and take on too many battles simultaneously. So beware the reckless leader.

A cowardly boss cannot make the hard decisions that are needed in the business. This boss avoids conflict, even when it is entirely necessary. He accommodates and appeases, he takes the easier route. A timid leader is easy to defeat: he will always crack under pressure, and his people will know it. So beware the cowardly leader.

A short-tempered leader is easily countered. Just light his fuse and watch him lose reason. A tetchy leader can’t contain his anger, and can’t channel it into a meaningful reaction. He will over-react, and show his hand long before he needed to. When the red mist descends, his mind becomes fogged and his knee jerks uncontrollably. So beware the short-tempered leader.

A self-important leader is easy to deceive. His ego is everything, and playing to his ego gets you everything. This is a character flaw that can be spotted from a mile away, and clever players rub their hands with glee when they see it. The conceited CEO is always surrounded by sycophants and yes-women. He is always undone by flattery. So beware the self-important leader.

An overly attached boss can’t see the big picture. His emotional mien places feeling above logic, and he will spend too much time protecting his people. Detachment is important in a leader: it allows for uncluttered thinking. A detached leader is not afraid to make changes in personnel whenever that is for the good of the army. A too-friendly boss will wring his hands for years. So beware the emotional leader.

If your boss is irresponsible, spineless, irritable, haughty AND too close, then you are clearly doomed along with your organisation. Fortunately, most leaders do not posses these five qualities together; they are usually unbalanced by one of them. If the flaw is minor and the leader follows the advice of that other sage of the same era, Socrates (“know thyself”), then it can be corrected and the leader may go on to great things. If the flaw is deep and the leader unaware of it, trouble will follow.

So use Sun Tzu to see your leader, and yourself, in a new light in 2008.


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