What Today’s Leaders Can Learn from Sun Tzu’s List of 5 Disasterous Faults


DY4Q9UNZBP“There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction; (2) cowardice, which leads to capture; (3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults; (4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame; (5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble. These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war.” -Sun Tzu “The Art of War”

I recently wrote an article based on a quote on Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and here I am doing it again. What can I say other than I have noticed that on occasion an individual can write down an idea that seems to transcend time and culture. This seems to be the case again with Sun Tzu and his 5 Disastrous Faults of a General. “The Art of War” has been studied for centuries for both its application to warfare as well as the use of its principle in business. Though the 5 Disastrous Faults were written about over 2,000 years ago, they still apply in the present era. Here is a list of Sun Tzu’s 5 Disastrous Faults of a General and how you can avoid them to maintain effective leadership.

Recklessness, which leads to destruction

If you read most entrepreneurship sites or leadership blogs you will see at least one or two articles telling you that in business you must risk it all in order to make it big today. This is simply untrue and can be damaging to the lives of many of those who are working to better themselves and those around them. While it may be true that there is a risk when launching a business or moving a team in a new direction, the risk should always be calculated. Sun Tzu (and many others) realized that recklessness rarely pays and that it is always smart to hedge a bet. Never allow your confidence cause you to become reckless. You have too much at stake to waste in a rash decision.

Cowardice, which leads to capture

I’m not sure about how concerned you are about being captured in the work that you do, but you may be worried about being easily defeated. The phrase “fake it till you make it” seems to be prevalent in western society right now. The reason for this is simple, it works. Weakness is not well received in many professional circles today as others will notice it and actively work to usurp the individual who is seemingly fragile. I’ve often said that people in business are very similar to sharks and chickens in that they attack when they see blood (chicken explanation here). While exuding confidence is a natural repellant to corporate bullying, we all know that overdoing it comes across as rude. I believe there is a better way to counter this as a leader in the present time. It is more effective to be relatable by allowing others to know you’re afraid just as they are, but to also show you are capable by pressing on through the fear. This will instill confidence in others and build a fantastic team of individuals who are working together to achieve the same ends. If others intend to do you or your business harm they will see that you (and those around you) are willing to fight even the toughest circumstances to fulfill your life-mission and think twice. (Here are some articles on building your willpower and grit)

A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults

Is there still anyone around who believes that a short fuse and quick temper is effective in the business world of today? I can see how it may work in certain sectors like the mafia or the NFL, but for most of us a hasty temper will come across as childish and unprofessional. In most negotiations and business dealings that occur in our time the person who keeps a level and clear head is the one who is able to come out with the best deal. In most competition, the one who reacts to their rivals prods and insults make thoughtless decisions often resulting in catastrophe or a less advantageous position. Don’t be that person. In leadership or competition, it is always good to keep your cool.

A delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame

During the Zhou Dynasty honor was “all the rage” (is this still an appropriate phrase to use?). While it is good to strive to be honorable, many people (especially leaders who have many eyes on them) can overvalue their honor and allow it to become pride. Many generals in Feudal China would make rash decisions to fight a battle outmanned and outmaneuvered because they were fearful of being seen as weak if they did not engage. Sun Tzu noticed this trend and warned against it. If you allow your honor and what others will say about your decisions/failures hold too much power over your decision-making you may make disastrous choices because of the fear of egg on your face. It’s these type of shoot-from-the-hip decisions that may make it impossible for you and your team to fight another day. I can relate this fault to another phrase you may have heard, “Pride comes before the fall”.

Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble


a :  the state of being concerned and anxious

b :  attentive care and protectiveness; also :  an attitude of earnest concern or attention

If you have read much from me you know that I am one of the biggest advocates of working with your team and making sure that they are appreciated and feel taken care of. I have had to learn that there is a point where care for my team or employees can become dangerous for the rest of the group or the impact that we are trying to make. There are times when individuals (or occasionally entire teams) can become toxic to an organization and tough choices must be made (you can read some of my thoughts on this here). While you may be close to some of your smart and talented team members, they can be extremely taxing on you as a leader when they are not meeting your expectations or are actively subverting the objectives of the organization. It takes a tremendous amount of mental energy to maintain a group with seditious personalities; energy that may be better used elsewhere. Take care of your people but be willing to cut those who are not actively working on the goals that have been set before the team.

So now you see how sometimes people from two millennia, on the other side of the world, and talking about warfare can teach you something about your day-to-day business. I hope this was helpful. If you get a chance read the rest of the book. You might pick up the Bible and “Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin”, those are really good too.


“To acquire wisdom is to love yourself; people who cherish understanding will prosper.”-Proverbs 19:8 NLT

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” -Benjamin Franklin