Modern Leadership from Art of War


art of war cover

Art of War - a work of 5th century BC by Sun Tzu, having 13 chapters. Every chapter is about warfare strategy and tactics. It explains general’s tactics and has influenced east-asian military warfare. Many generals have drawn inspiration from this book.

More you absorb this book, you can see through the text and you realize the text can be applied to modern leadership even in this industrial age. So my idea with this post is to my interpret and apply to current context of leadership and management of a team.

You may find so many articles and quotes from “Art of War” and you may ask why another one ? Because its my take on it from the source and my personal notes for my future self to refer and ponder.

We all have a leader inside each of us. No one is a born leader. We just need to have the mindset to become one. Leader I mention here is within us and everyone is a leader. So it’s about you and me.

When I mention team ( it applies to any size ), it can be replaced with Organization ( if you are high up the ladder ) or it can be replaced with project if you are managing

Who is a Leader ?

As Brene Brown defines this,

Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.

  • Grooming a team is costly. Every small things counts towards that and everything will add up in the end.
  • If target/goal is long way down the road, team will grow tired
  • No one will benefit in an organization if the goal or target is far away.
  • Splitting the long term into many short term goals are practical and will keep the team motivated. Read more
  • An organization goals should be investor’s/shareholder’s profit and not about lengthy project with big promises. If they are big promises try to split and have a clear roadmap with short term victories / success.
  • This will keep both shareholder and your team motivated.
  • So Leaders are the ones on whom organization depends upon for delivering profits and keeping shareholder happy. At the same time they are ethical and have a clear roadmaps for the organization and the teams.


  • Leader should have patience
  • Best way to approach is be subtle and deliver the promise.
  • Leader should not his/her own whims while leading a team. Every thought should be for team/organization and its betterment


  • Leader should be knowledgable and then he can preach others. They should walk the talk and keep preaching to minimal
  • Leader’s tactics is decided by team strength. He will play to the strength of the team
  • Leader is not interested in success, rather he focuses on process to acheive success
  • He adheres to principles and develops methods to control the outcome. He fine tunes them until he has power to control success.


  • Leader develops metrics to see where things stand currently
  • He understands and estimates how much to be done
  • He makes sure there is method and discipline to acheive them
  • He always looks for opportunity to fine tune the path to success

Size don’t matter

  • For a good leader, he doesn’t differentiate between large and smaller team
  • He studies the team and understands the strong and weak points
  • He develops process and makes sure they are followed for its effectiveness
  • He tries to keep his tactics simple and keeps optimizing to produce a winning combination
  • He makes decision on time and brings about energy to the team
  • Even in chaotic situation, he makes decision with a calmness of mind
  • He appears weak but has complete control of the situation
  • He focuses on bringing about energy that it is like a rolling stone there is no stopping

Weak and Strong

  • Leader will be on time. He respects his time and he doesn’t take his team’s time for granted
  • He does not dictate terms directly. He rather works towards buy in from his team with conviction
  • He is always ahead of others in terms of knowledge and skill
  • He pursues excellence himself before expecting of others. Other words he will not ask his team to do something which he himself cannot do
  • He forces his team to pursue excellence
  • He takes his team which his team did not believe the can do something
  • He makes his team realize their potential
  • He gains the support of his team by his excellence and trust he shows on his team
  • TRUST is the main component
  • He is subtle and puts his team upfront and he stays behind
  • His entire focus is on his team. He will not allow anyone to touch his team so as to distract them from pursue of excellence
  • He will make sure team improves their skill and nothing else
  • He is the team’s gatekeeper. He prepares his team for success
  • He knows the team’s strength and weakness. He plans the activity according to them and makes sure his team’s weakness is not exposed.
  • He has his strategy and plays his cards so close to his chest so people can only see his moves
  • He plans accordance to the current available information. he knows the strategy but varies method to acheive it
  • Leader is like water he takes shape in accordance to the project and its challenges


  • In a big picture, leader is working for his management above him ( for CEO it is the shareholders and customers )
  • He forms his team carefully. He knows Right Hiring is important
  • He then works towards creating harmony within the team and understands his team before taking them on to acheive a common goal
  • Leader understands the importance of work-life balance. He understands his team needs rest.


  • You cannot be a good leader, if you don’t understand whats your purpose and team’s target and why we need to acheive that.
  • Leader will work with his people/domain experts/Business/product owner or whoever he can reach and get this information and understands the big picture and purpose.
  • He then communicates them back to his team with transparency and honesty. So they are clear on their agenda

Common Goal

  • Leader ponders over the plans and think through the roadmap before he makes his move
  • He understands how to divide the team to acheive the goal ( parallelize ). Sometimes it is best to work as a group and sometimes it is best to divide
  • He understands, a single skillful worker cannot take his team to success or an average man can create a downfall.
  • He understands its the team which when working together, can take them to the finish line and acheive success

Handling Stress

  • He understands being calm and self aware is needed to make a better decision
  • He will not talk or engage with someone (in his team) when he is angry or when he has decided to fight
  • He does not pressurize or stress a person so much that he breaks down. He gives his/her space and allow them to perform. He interferes only when he sees an individual cannot decide or lacks enough information to move forward

Taking help

  • Leader never hesitates to ask for help if knows he can get one. He who knows this makes progress with ease
  • Leader considers all options. He knows how to handle his team
  • Good leader never isolates himself , for which he knows dangers it posess
  • He plans considering both the pros and cons and lists them down.
  • If he knows a team member is hostile, he keeps them busy so he creates less disturbance within the team
  • He is prepared for all kinds of outcome. He knows when to be offensive or when to be defensive

Who is a Wise Leader ?

One who avoids

  • Raging Anger / Temper
  • Being a coward
  • Being so sensitive to shame
  • Too much care for his men, which can cause him to worry too much and makes him take emotional decision
  • Recklessness in pursuing an idea without considering risks

Making Progress

  • A leader is not anxious
  • He works on getting the basics right
  • He has a checklist and makes sure to follow it
  • He makes sure men are not tired and makes sure they get plenty of rest so they are not burned out
  • A Good Leader knows importance of communication. He knows how to talk to his management or higher ups
  • He makes sure he communicates his intent in a clear and crisp way
  • He creates all avenues possible for his team to prosper and they stay highly productive
  • If things are too political, he communicates them to his higher ups transparently and without waiting
  • If there is too much confusion within the team, he understands his position is weak and there is lack of focus

Customer Focused

  • Leader makes no assumptions about the end users for whom the team is working for
  • He always thinks about customer and he is customer obssessed
  • Leader treats his team with humanity. He instills discipline as he knows nothing can be acheived without discipline
  • Leader shows confidence in his team, but he insists on his orders being obeyed

Operating Conditions

  • Leader knows the constraints with which he has to execute the project
  • Types of constraints / challenges
    • He is given a free hand
    • There is lot of pressure to deliver
    • This project/target is a temporary filler
    • There is very little allowance for things to go wrong. Lot is at stakes
  • Leader understands the reasons for a team’s failure when he sees
    • Insubordination
    • Disorganization
    • No consensus within the team
  • If team members are strong and leader is weak, there will be insubordination
  • If leader is angry and team members show resentment, the result gained is zero
  • Leaders engage in direct confrontation with a team member only when they know they will win for sure with all data points. This will be the last resort
  • Leader protects his team in adverse situation
  • A great leader is not proud about success due to his decisions or fears disgrace by stepping back when he knows his decision is wrong
  • Leader treats his team members as his own children. He knows if he treats them like that, they will follow him to any depths
  • If a leader can’t make a decision or quell disorder within the team, he understand this team serves no purpose
  • He knows team is half way,when there are lot of uncertanities for acheiving the target
  • He makes solving the uncertanities as his top priority and thereby unblocking his team


A project can come in various sizes, with varied constraints and present us with challenges. So these challenges for a leader

- can be familiar 
- Familiar but some details/parts are foreign/abstract
- General/Proven 
- More common but foreign
- More foreign conditions and less proven situations
- Difficult but acheivable
- Familiar situation but risky in current context
- Risky and never done before
    - Fail Fast nature
    - Experimental

Leader understands on what conditions and challenges he is operating in before taking up the project. Based on these challenges , he lays his strategy to acheive them. He comes up with plans based on these and presents them with clarity to his higher ups

  • If he is in familiar situation, he is confident and not anxious and he keeps his team moving in a steady pace
  • If situation is risky and not familiar then it is good to move faster without wasting time
  • If situation is risky with less familiarity it is best to move forward a group with prior transparent communication with team

Moving Rapidly

  • Leader knows moving fast is essence of success, as it will uncover issues faster and you will have time to fix them or research them
  • Leader will put his team in high pressure situations. If he knows his team is good and has lot of confidence, his team will deliver results
  • Team will initially may have fear and have self-doubt. But once they face the situation, they will give their best
  • Leader will reject omens and superstitious beliefs
  • Team will lose fear and self-doubt when they face do-or-die scenarios. If there is no help available, they will fight harder and they need not be told.

Skillful tactician is like a snake. If you attack its head, it will attack by its tail. If you attack its tail, it will then attach by his head. So if you attack in the middle, it will attack by both

Order in Chaos

  • Leader is quiet and secretive
  • He changes plans according to the situation so fast. People might see it as chaos, but he sees order within
  • Based on risk, he will chose to move faster or be defensive when there is too much politics
  • Leader deals with his/her team, as if he/she is dealing with a single person
  • He takes his team so deep, so there is no point of return and sees them coming out with success
  • He walks the path of process and changes plans according to situation to see success


Roadmap serves 2 purpose

  • To know where they are currently
  • To time their commitments

Leader starts with Roadmap (this responsibility can be different person , like Product Manager). Every team should have one before pursuing the goal.

From Team’s point of view , roadmap serves 2 purpose

  • Understand the gains of acheiving milestones
  • They understand their current situation in the journey
  • Ensures transparency

So a leader should not make a decision (when to include certain features ) based on ego / statisfy himself,but to betterment of project and team as a whole

  • Leader is aware anger solves no purpose and patience delivers result
  • Though higher up or management pushes for certain things, leader is cautious and gives a lot of thought before making a commitment

Information is wealth

Moving and implementing a project is high cost affair. It takes up lot of time and effort. So if a leader is reacting to situations, then he is of no use to the organization, he is a dead weight

Why prior Information is important ?

  • Prior Knowledge cannot come from
    • Experience
    • A derived calculations
    • From above the sky magically
  • This knowledge is special as it is obtained only by talking to another person ( expert preferred )

So How to obtain this knowledge ?

- Talking to your team and feedbacks obtained from them
- By Valuing team members opinion 
- By Talking to Management or leadership above
- By Talking to Subject matter experts ( SMEs )
- By talking to people who have this before ( if available )

Leader(YOU) will use all these informations are used together to understand the present situation and gauge the future plans

  • People who provide these informations are to be rewarded more than any one else
  • Leader will present the gathered information to his team with transparency and honesty
  • Leader will rely on Data and feedback to make a decision and change his plans constantly if need arises
  • Information and Data are another ingredient for success
  • Leader indentifies the information choking point and unblocks them actively

So Leader has so many traits. He wears so many hats even without any realizing them. He is aware of his own strengths and weakness and he presents himself with a calm composure. He values his team and together they deliver success.

Further Reads

Reach me at sr21077 [at] outlook [dot] com with feedback and comments. Any good references or suggestions please make sure to send it across.

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