Sun Tzu Art of War – Five Fatal Characteristics of a General


Thus, there are five dangers that will plague any general. If he is reckless, he can be killed. If he is cowardly and desperate to live, he can be captured. If he is easily angered, he can be provoked. If he is sensitive to honor, he can be insulted. If he is overly compassionate to people, he can be disturbed and harassed. These five characteristics are the greatest pitfalls and mistakes of a general and the cause of disasters in any military operation. The destruction of an army and the deaths of generals are caused by these five dangers, thus they should be examined thoroughly. – Sun Tzu Art of War, Chapter Eight

The five characteristics mentioned in the section above are:

  • Recklessness
  • Cowardly
  • Easily angered
  • Sensitive to honor
  • Overly compassionate

And Sun Tzu briefly mentioned the consequences of such characteristics if they are found in the generals.


So in business, what are these five characteristics analogous to what Sun Tzu mentioned?

  • Recklessness would still be recklessness
  • Cowardly would be indecisive and risk averse
  • Easily angered would still be easily angered
  • Sensitive to honor would be egoistic
  • Overly compassionate would still be the same


As I have mentioned just now, a lot of people focused on favorable factors without consideration for the unfavorable factors, thus they become reckless and jump into a decision too soon. Such quick decisions often result in fatal mistakes that could make a company incur huge costs. For example, seeing that most of your clients have move their factories to China, you also started to shift your factories to be near them, without considering the infrastructure, the labor, the regulations and so on before you decide to set up your factory. A factory with equipments and land costs a lot to a company. Moreover such assets are not easily liquidated. Such reckless decision would deal a huge blow to the company’s financial strength, and may render it insolvent.


As mentioned would this would be analogous to being indecisive or too risk averse. Often, these people have what we call, analysis paralysis. They analyze too much into data and information so much so that they are not able to make decisions fast. If a leader commits too much time into making a decision, he would be reduced to inaction and in the end, not able to capitalize on opportunities or limiting damages by competitors’ moves. Again, damages if not limited would be again fatal to the company.


Have you ever try to do your planning in an angered state? Were you able to see a lot of loopholes in your plan after you come back and review it in a calm state? Anger will block off a lot of information from our brain and we are unable to think properly as well. So if one is angered easily, he is often not able to think and plan thoroughly and will miss out a lot of details. And we have seen in Chapter One of Sun Tzu Art of War, how much emphasis, Sun Zi place on a detailed assessment and planning, such a general would be a danger to its own troops.


Having a certain amount of self esteem is good as it boosts confidence, and with confidence people are able to carry out their tasks. But for someone who is egoistic, thinking that he is the greatest and the company would be dead without him. Such person is blind to the benefits to the company of certain project and will always be on the lookout for his own benefits. He is likely to be very protective over other people comments on him and would unlikely change and learn from lessons. Such person can be easily angered and also be reckless in their decisions. The consequences would be the same as that of a easily angered person and a reckless person.


As I have mentioned before, if a leader is over compassionate towards his staff, it would sapped their fighting spirit and it gives the staff the idea that they are in control. The leader would not be able to make his team members carry out the instructions he passed down resulting in a breakdown of the department. If a department is not functional anymore, similar to a breakdown in an organ of a body, the whole company cannot function properly. Having an overly compassionate leader in the organization is tantamount to having a cancerous tumor in the company. Sooner or later, the tumor will cause death onto the whole company. As mentioned before, there need to be discipline. Usually, a leader who is overly compassionate is not able to instill discipline in his teams, not because he did not set an example but it is because the leader would not punish them even if they misbehave.

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