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The Art of War and Business Leadership in China - 孙子兵法

Published: 16 May 2014

Usman W. Chohan (楚浩云) is an MBA candidate at Desautels with a Concentration in Strategy and Leadership. He is currently on an MBA exchange in Beijing, at a joint program between Tsinghua School of Economics (SEM) and MIT. The following piece is based on his work on Leadership Models for China and the Art of War, for the course Business Leadership in China at the Tsinghua SEM.

In general, the nature of business leadership in China is virtually diametrically opposed to that in the West, and it has evolved over several millennia into a system which applies a substructure of values predicated on high power distance, a long-term orientation, and collectivist principles. Several formative texts, including Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist teachings have influenced this leadership paradigm, but it becomes manifest that the precepts of the Art of War specifically have had a profound impact on, and are ineradicably ingrained within, the ethos of Chinese leaders.

The Art of War is a seminal work on the implementation of strategy, the exertion of power, the accumulation of information, and the demonstration of leadership, all in the form of a compilation of succinct precepts that possess an almost universal applicability. The able leader, or specifically “general“ (将,jiàng), is a recurrent theme throughout the 13 chapters of the Art of War, and it behooves those aspiring to lead businesses in China, be they Chinese or foreign themselves, to meticulously study the teachings of this book that pertain to the cultivation and manifestation of leadership.

Power Distance

“Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak”. (Chapter 3)

Chinese culture is characterized by a high degree of Power Distance, whereby a great deal of authority resides in the hands of the leader relative to his subordinates. High Power Distance cultures emphasize the centrality and the elevation of the leader’s position, and the adoption of an authoritative leadership style is congruent with this system. This perception of the leader is corroborated by the Art of War, wherein the “key man” is viewed as necessary for organizational progress, and the notion that the leader is the cornerstone or “bulwark” of success continues to pervade Chinese thought.

Collectivism, Benevolence and Sacrifice


 “Hence a commander who advances without any thought of winning personal fame and withdraws in spite of certain punishment, whose only concern is to protect his people and promote the interests of his ruler, the jewel of the nation” (Chapter 10)

It is a deep-seated notion within Chinese culture, predicated in large part on Confucian thought, that selflessness is a laudable personality trait for leaders to cultivate. A collectivist outlook such as China’s further nurtures the expectation that the leader will mete out benevolent treatment to those under his care, and undertake sacrifices to safeguard the unit, even at his own risk. An effective leader in China must advance without any thought of personal fame, and “protect his people” in line with collectivist predilections. Sacrifice, selflessness, and benevolence thus embody a core aspect of enlightened leadership in the Chinese belief system. Also, patriotic sentiment characterizes many revered Chinese leaders, and the Art of War recognizes this sentiment by ascribing to the ideal Chinese leader the title of the “jewel of the nation” (國之寶也).


“If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual”. (Chapter 9)
Foreign leaders arriving in China tend to find that empowering Chinese employees is a tactic that often backfires due to employee inaction for fear of committing errors.  They prefer “inaction” to “equivocation in action”, which is why the leader’s efforts to empower his employees turn out to be fruitless. Therefore, the Art of War has prescribed that a leader exhibit confidence in employees but always “insist” on his orders being obeyed. He may express trust in his employees, but the emphasis must be on the imposition of his will; he must set the direction and lead his employees onwards.



“A Skillful general conducts his army just as though he were leading a single man, willy-nilly, by the hand” (Chapter 11)

The underlying belief in Chinese culture is that there should be significant micromanagement by leadership in the evolution of projects, and that management of an organization is really the management of the sum of its parts, including the sum of its employees, as if the manager were guiding each employee “by the hand, willy-nilly”. Micromanagement is perceived as the involvement of leaders in the advancement of projects, and an expression of the cherished ideal of Togetherness  (和, ) relative to subordinates undertaking the project.

Cultural parameters such as high power distance, collectivism, and long-term orientation differentiate the expectations for leaders in China from those in the West. The Art of War is one of the foundational texts in the body of Chinese literature that has left an ineffaceable impact on the archetype of the ideal leader. Aspirants to leadership positions in Chinese businesses, whether themselves foreign or Chinese, must remain cognizant of how the precepts of the Art of War have had a profound impact on, and are indelibly suffused into, the Chinese ethos.

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