13 Powerful Sun Tzu Leadership Quotes That Will Motivate You

by Alex Lim
sun tzu leadership quotes

For thousands of years, Sun Tzu’s leadership quotes had been used to guide leaders in many organizations, all to guide their followers more efficiently.

But before we delve into these Sun Tzu quotes, let’s first know the man behind these quotes.

The Story of Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher who lived during the warring states and is best known for his work, The Art of War. Sun Tzu was born in 544 BC to a military family in present-day Shandong Province in China with ‘Sun Wu’ as his birth name.

His father, Sun Bin, was a general who served under King Helu of Wu and later became head of the royal bodyguard. Historians believe Sun Tzu learned the art of war at an early age from his father.

Sun Tzu then served as an advisor to King Helu when the king was having problems dealing with Wu’s rival, Chu, and Sun Tzu told him he needed to fortify his city walls before starting a war with the Chu.

As a result, King Helu built the famous Long Wall of 10,000 Li, which ran from the coast of the East China Sea to present-day Gansu Province (incidentally, this wall is still standing today).

After King Helu died in 493 BC, King Liao became ruler of Wu and appointed Sun Tzu as the general of all Wu forces. The first task of Sun Tzu was to train the soldiers to defend the Long Wall of 10,000 Li.

In 473 BC, King Liao of Wu died, and Sun Tzu lost his position as a general. In his 60s, Sun Tzu lived in retirement. He is believed to have died in 496 BC.

The Legendary Art of War

Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in the 5th century BC. Remarkably, the Art of War that was written so long ago has such relevance to today’s modern world.

The Art of War has 13 chapters, each devoted to a different aspect of warfare or the art of war.

In Western civilization, Sun Tzu’s work has had a significant impact on literature and psychology. His book, Art of War, has been translated into the English language several times over, with the oldest translation by Lionel Giles.

Sun Tzu’s Principles of War

The first concept in the principles of war of Sun Tzu is to be aware of the conditions of his army. If you are aware, then you can change your tactics accordingly.

The next thing that one must do is to have a grasp of psychology. You must know how the enemy thinks and what they are apt to do in any situation. You must also know how your troops think to motivate them to win.

The third thing that one should do is maintain strict discipline. If discipline is lax, it will reflect negatively on the morale of the entire army.

The fourth thing that one should do is never give up hope or to despair, but instead, keep pressing forward until you attain victory, no matter the odds.

The last thing that one must do is to know your adversary. You must know what they are capable of, and you must recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Leadership Quotes by Sun Tzu

  1. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The first thing to note in the warfare method of Sun Tzu is to know yourself and your enemy. Keep your army strong and your enemy weak. If you allow your enemy to become strong, then you have allowed him to defeat you, even if he doesn’t attack you directly.

2. “Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”

In this quote, Sun Tzu said if you let your guard down for even a second, you doom yourself. He believed that if you didn’t maintain constant wariness, your enemy will take advantage of it.

3. “A leader leads by example, not by force.”

Sun Tzu believed a leader should set an example for the men under him to follow. He thought a leader should not force his soldiers to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Warriors go to war because they want to win, not because they have been forced to go.

4. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

5. “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

The weapons Sun Tzu uses are not physical. Instead, they are psychological. He was a master at knowing exactly what the opponent would do in each situation. He thought that if you could eliminate your enemy’s will to fight, then you had won much more than you would have by just defeating them in battle.

6. “Rewards for good service should not be deferred by a single day.”

Sun Tzu knew it is essential to reward loyal people who have done an outstanding job. It is also necessary to acknowledge them as soon as possible. If you wait too long, they will lose the incentive to work hard, and they will feel as if their efforts are unappreciated.

7. “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

Sun Tzu believed one should never press a desperate foe too hard because he would fight like a cornered animal and was more likely to fight death than a normal man. You shouldn’t attack someone who was cornered unless you knew he was exhausted or had been softened up beforehand.

8. “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

Building your opponent a golden bridge to retreat means not destroying all your enemy’s forces. Sun Tzu believed a commander should always give his enemy an escape route so he can leave the battlefield with honor.

9. “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness.”

The book Art of War written by Sun Tzu is very subtle. He believed the best way for a commander to win was not to engage in direct combat with his enemy, but to outsmart him. This involved deceiving the enemy and making him think you were doing one thing when, in fact, you were doing another.

10. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Sun Tzu believed that the course of action that brings victory is the best one. To win, you have to be willing to both attack and defend.

If a commander’s primary focus is on defending, he cannot find opportunities for attack. If a commander’s focus is mainly on attacking, then he cannot prepare for defense.

11. “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons, and they will follow you into the deepest valley.”

If you treat your soldiers well, they will fight hard for you and be loyal to you. He thought men fought in fear of death, but fathers did not. They fought for their children and loved ones.

He believed that if a commander were to treat his soldiers as he would his own children, they would fight like men fighting for their own lives, not knowing any way to lose except to die on the battlefield.

12. “Move swift as the wind and closely formed as the wood. Attack like the fire and be still as the mountain.”

Speed and concentration are the keys to a successful attack. While you keep focus on your troops for the attack, you must not let your enemy discover you.

13. “Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by contentment. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being, nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. There is no instance of a nation having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Sun Tzu saw the futility of pursuing a war that caused more harm than good. So he advocated turning a brief war into a long one if it served an advantage. However, sometimes it is best to end a battle quickly, as this will save not just lives but also resources.

If you’re still up for more quotes, perhaps you can get your fill by reading our post on quotes about self-discipline.

Modern Leadership Theories Inspired by the Art of War

Even though the ideas in his book, the Art of War, continue to influence many modern leadership strategies, there is a significant difference between these two. The Art of War uses Chinese military tactics as its core fundamental, whereas industrial society dictates modern leadership strategies.

1. Behavioral Theory

According to this theory, the leader is accountable for the behavior of his followers. It sees the importance of the leader in the way he interacts with his subordinates. If you want your subordinates to be motivated and productive, you must first be productive yourself.

2. Role Theory

The role theory focuses on a specific leader’s role rather than his personality or characteristics. Having a clear understanding of your role as a leader is one of the most critical aspects of leadership. Once you know what you are supposed to do, then you can get started.

3. Contingency Theory

This theory suggests that the leadership style changes according to the situation and the followers’ needs. For instance, you might need to be a diplomat in one situation and a dictator in another. This is the reason it is so important to understand your role clearly as a leader while being aware of your followers’ needs at all times.

4. Political Theory

The role of the leader is not only to get his work done. He also must make sure he stays in power. This means that your leadership strategy will impact the way you interact with other people within your organization, as well as on how you interact with other organizations.

Political theory suggests that you will have to be ready to compromise sometimes for you to get what you want.

Read this post to learn about an innovative leader and how his leadership allowed him to create an empire for himself.

How to Apply Sun Tzu’s Leadership Principles in Your Life

You can apply the leadership principles of Sun Tzu in many areas of life. For example, you can use his lessons on how you lead your family, decide for them, take charge of your business, or the people heading your organization.

To implement his leadership principles in your life, you need to stay focused on achieving your goals. If there is a goal that you want to achieve but can’t quite figure out how to get there, take some time to think about it and break down each step of the way from where you are now until where you want to be.

Then think about what other resources will be necessary to accomplish those steps and how many more resources you’ll need to achieve each goal. This will help you identify obstacles you might face and how to overcome them.

A Final Thought

The Sun Tzu quotes above comprise many ideas. However, they all focus on applying strategic thinking and how to achieve goals by being patient and waiting for the right time to act.

As you read through these Sun Tzu quotes, think about how you can apply each one to your life. War might not be a part of your life, but the process and principles of achieving a goal and dealing with problems are.

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