in: Career & Wealth, Featured, Leadership

• Last updated: May 31, 2021

Lessons from The Art of War: Good Leaders vs. Bad Leaders

The Ultimate Art of War cover.

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from The Ultimate Art of War by Antony Cummins, in which the author offers a fresh translation as well as a distillation and commentary of Sun Tzu’s teachings. The excerpt below provides a short summary of the qualities that Sun Tzu thought made up bad leaders versus good leaders. 

The Qualities of a Bad Leader

Sun Tzu lists the following five characteristics that, if found to dominate a leader’s personality, will bring the downfall of that leader’s army:

1. Recklessness. Leaders who move forward to fight at every opportunity and see all situations as reason for a battle will get their army killed in the end.

2. Over-Cautiousness. Leaders who always avoid fights, look for the way out and are preoccupied by a wish to return home safely will end up being cornered and captured, because the enemy will find a way to chase them into a trap.

3. Hot-Headedness. Leaders who are easily angered can be provoked into declaring war without a plan in place.

4. Vanity. Leaders who have a high self-esteem and a desire to preserve their noble reputation at all costs can be manipulated through character assassination and slander.

5. Excessive Compassion. Leaders who care too much about the welfare of their people can lose sight of their objectives. Hard as it may sound, you have to be prepared to accept a certain amount of collateral damage in a campaign. If the enemy suspects that you are trying to avoid incurring any casualties whatsoever, they may try to manipulate you by targeting civilians knowing that this will throw you into confusion.

The above five characteristics exist in all humans, but none of them should be dominant. Do not let your personality become an obvious target for the enemy.

War Tip: Do not be too quick to battle or too quick to retreat. Do not anger in haste or place too much importance on your personal honor. Learn to accept that there will be casualties in war.

The Qualities of a Good Leader

Sun Tzu [says] that an army must be commanded by a single person who makes each soldier feel as if they were being led personally by the hand. This is how to make the army work as one.

The perfect leader will have the following qualities:

1. Calmness. A good leader is neither angry nor forceful. “Power” is not “force” and an army cannot be kept together for long through intimidation. Therefore, remain calm most of the time and only show your teeth when it is really necessary.

2. Unpredictability. Do not make the obvious move, and avoid leaving a pattern in your past activities. The enemy should not be able to identify what you will do in the future from what you did in the past. Do not take predictable routes, change your camp position . . . keep the enemy guessing.

3. Inscrutability. You also need to be unreadable, so that even if an enemy spy succeeds in infiltrating your camp and observes you from close quarters they still cannot read your thoughts.

4. Self-Discipline. There is a difference between obedience, discipline, and self-discipline. Many people are obedient, some have discipline forced upon them, but few are self-disciplined. While others rest and relax, the good leader works and only rests when it is the correct time.

5. Secrecy. There is a delicate balance between keeping plans secret and involving your command team. Too much secrecy and the command team will be alienated; too little and plans will be leaked. It appears Sun Tzu prefers more secrecy and to keep his command team loyal in other ways.

6. Leading By Example. Always be there with your troops (but maybe not always at the front), be observable, and earn the respect of the soldiers by sharing their hardships. Sun Tzu uses various images here to back up his point that the commander is “with the troops.” The first image he gives is of the commander leading the troops up a ladder that is then kicked away, allowing for no return. Alternatively, the army is represented as a great herd of animals moving as one with the leader in the center directing them all in a way that cannot be predicted from the outside. Be with the troops in all dangerous situations, but remain unknown to the enemy.

7. Responsibility. As leader you must confidently assume responsibility for the whole force. Be at the center of everything and use your troops in the most efficient way with the best results.

War Tip: A perfect leader is calm, unpredictable, unreadable, self-disciplined, discreet, is in the thick of it with the troops and is in total command from the center.


Taken from The Ultimate Art of War, text copyright © Antony Cummins, Watkins Media 2019.

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