How a Leader can Fail his People

Knowing when to interfere and when to stay in the background is an art

sun tzu leadership

Good leader who wants to bring the best to his people may bring them harms instead – despite with good intention.

As a matter of fact, one of the biggest reasons for a leader to fail is, ironically, to be overly concerned.  As a result, he does not know when to interfere and when to stay in the background.

In the famous ancient military treatise — The Art of War — Sun Tzu highlights three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army, and they are good summary of how leaders can fail their people through their unnecessary interference.

First, by commanding the army to advance or to retreat, not knowing that it cannot obey. This is called ‘hobbling’ the army. It is like strapping together the legs of a horse to prevent it from straying – but ending up the army being gobbled up by the enemy.

Second, governing the army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, forgetting that the army has to be managed differently. This causes restlessness and confusion in the soldier’s minds. The ignorance can be as basic as management style. In a peaceful environment, you may lead by persuasion and cajoling. But in the battlefield, asking a soldier whether he would like to advance would result only in confusion. Orders to advance or retreat are obeyed without question or delay.

Third, issuing commands without knowing the rapidly changing conditions at the front line. The local conditions change and fighting by the rules of previous battles may end up in disasters. Indiscriminate interference not only is a hindrance, but can also shake the confidence of the soldiers.

Knowing when to interfere and when to stay in the background is an art. Acting can be worse than non-action if the leader acts in the wrong way.

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