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Character-Based Leadership
By Mark McNeilly

What do character and strategy have to do with one another? To successfully carry out a strategy that will bring long-term benefit to your company, one must have character. Sun Tzu had this to say about character:

"And therefore the general who in advancing does not seek personal fame, and in withdrawing is not concerned with avoiding punishment, but whose only purpose is to protect the people and promote the best interests of his sovereign, is the precious jewel of the state...Few such are to be had." Sun Tzu

To become such a leader, to put others before yourself, is not an easy task. It demands sacrifice. You must be willing to build your character and not just your image, to lead with actions and not just words, to share your employees trials, and not just their triumphs, and to motivate emotionally, not just materially.

Much has been written in the last few decades about management methods, devices and tricks one can learn to manipulate people to do what one wants. However, little has been said about what true leadership is really based on--character. To lead and command properly, a person must have certain character traits and virtues.

"By command I mean the generals' qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness...If wise, a commander is able to recognize changing circumstances and to act expediently. If sincere, his men will have no doubt of the certainty of rewards and punishments. If humane, he loves mankind, sympathized with others, and appreciates their industry and toil. If courageous, he gains victory by seizing opportunity without hesitation. If strict, his troops are disciplined because they are in awe of him and are afraid of punishment."

In business there are many unknowns. Therefore, wisdom is important for it allows a leader to clearly define the company's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities and build a solid strategy. Courage is essential because, without it, a leader cannot take advantage of wisdom with bold action when the time requires it. Sincerity and humanity are crucial because, at the heart of it, leading a team, department, division, or company means accomplishing success through other human beings. Discipline is necessary, for it is required to ensure that strategy is executed successfully. All these traits are a manifestation of a strong, positive and well-developed character.

A study that looked at hundreds of North American companies concluded that "after 4 years, 15%-25% of the variation in profitability was due to the character of the chief executives." So character is therefore critical in being successful in your business (and I might add, your personal life). As Sun Tzu said,

"Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions. By these means they make their governments invincible."

Mark McNeilly brings Sun Tzu's strategic principles to life as the author of  Sun Tzu and the Art of Business; with TV and radio interviews and with seminar presentations. For more information visit

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