Lessons on How to Be a Leader From The Art of War

Manager and leader are two terms that are often interchanged especially in the business setting. But are they totally different from each other, or at one point, over a period of time do they meld into each other and mean the same?

Leader Versus Manager

Let’s very quickly define what differentiates a leader from a manager. A manager is part of a business with the job of doing the important functions of management which includes leading, planning, organizing and controlling.

Some managers can be leaders if they can sufficiently carry out the qualities of leadership in the management setting which includes motivating employees, good communication, being an inspiration and encouraging his subordinates to be better.

A leader, on the other hand, can be anyone in the organization and doesn’t have to be in a managerial or supervisory position.  Unlike managers that need to be followed because it is a requirement, leaders gain followers because of their personality and beliefs. A leader is personally invested in whatever job that needs to be done and is very passionate about his work, and helps his followers attain their goals.

So how do you become a good leader?

The Art of War

While it is true that some people have the personality to become a leader, the art of leadership is not innate. Nobody is born to be a leader. It is a skill, and it can be learned by anybody who wants to invest the time and effort to do so.

Nowadays, there are many ways that you can learn to be a leader. There are countless leadership seminars that you can attend, or you can go back to school to learn to be one, or you can read books.

There are literally hundreds of books today that are written by famous authors about leadership. However, none of them can hold a candle to an ancient book written over 2500 years ago by a supposed general Sun Tzu. The book is called the Art of War.

There is no exact date on when the book was published, but it was believed to be somewhere between the 4th and 5th century. Although a lot of experts have argued and presented evidence that Sun Tzu never really existed and the book is just a compilation of Chinese theories on military strategy by Chinese generals over the ages.

But the truth remains that whether or not Sun Tzu really existed, it is clear that the wisdom that the Art of War has is real and has been used by famous, ( and infamous) leaders like Mao Zedong, as well as military generals like Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powel, and Ho Chi Minh to name a few.  

Five Qualities of a Leader

In the art of war, Sun Tzu outlines five traits that an effective leader should possess:

 Wise and Strategic


 Benevolence and Love



Let’s discuss a little bit on what each one of these qualities means.

A Leader is Wise and Strategic

“Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.” 

A leader should take time to make sure that he as all the necessary information needed to be able to make a sound, objective and honest decision.

A leader, especially in the modern business landscape, should take time to educate themselves so that they can develop the skills necessary to be able to not only solve issues but to identify problems before they become real issues.

A Leader has Integrity and Honesty

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not to fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”

A good leader always acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses. Being secure in yourself as a person first allows you to objectively judge what you and your team members are capable of. And by doing so, you can make sound decisions that play up your team’s strengths and not its weaknesses.

A Leader Loves and Is Benevolent

Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley”

Good leaders are genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the people who work for them and they will go out of their way to make sure that their team members have they need to be able to succeed.

A good leader makes himself available to his team members and they feel confident to approach him for any kind of problems that they encounter. For example, in construction, a good field supervisor should be approachable and his team members can ask him any kind of questions pertaining to the job, even simple questions like what is construction safety?, or what is RFI?

And while it’s not possible to be in the trenches all the time with your team, the occasional effort means a lot to them.

A Leader has Courage

“ A leader leads by example, not by force”

A good leader should always set a good example to the team because the leader’s actions set the tone for the rest of the team to follow.  

This includes being decisive and courageous even in the face of difficult circumstances. This aura of courage encourages trust from the people that follow you and it makes it easier for them to follow your lead, and not question your decision.

A Leader Exercises Discipline

“I fully believe he was a good soldier, but I had him beheaded because he acted without orders.”

This quote is a little bit macabre, but it only means that in any organization, there should be a concrete and consistent set procedure of rewards and punishment which is applicable to everybody.

Discipline is very important especially to time-sensitive industries like construction. In construction, everybody is expected to perform their own task efficiently while making sure that it adheres to the limits of the construction drawing.

Discipline is not about imparting fear in your team members, it’s about teaching responsibility to each and every member of your team. It is making your team members understand that not doing their task properly can have consequences not only to themselves but to the business as a whole as well.

Leaders have a vision that inspires people to follow them, but a manager only has people working for them. Managers in any industry need to be both a strong manager as well as a leader so that they can get their entire team on board and lead them to success.