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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge Review

Sunzi and the Art of Bad Leadership

By OOI KEE BENG. This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 31, 2021 – June 06, 2021.

LAMENTING OVER the lack of leadership grows more common by the day, especially during a crisis, be it 1997, 2008 or 2020. This is true in Malaysia and in most parts of the world — in politics, in economics or in managing climate change.

For a course on good leadership, few books can match the Chinese classic, Sunzi’s The Art of War. All sorts of disciplines, ranging from war strategy to business management to psychotherapy, have used it to good effect.

Teaching good leadership may, however, be difficult in an age and in countries where that is strikingly missing. Illustrative examples and outstanding models are necessary to any pedagogical enterprise. And if that has been missing for a long time, then the younger generation may not even recognise bad leadership, woefully mistaking it as the baseline for leadership in general, lowering the bar abysmally the way fast food has replaced dining, or T-shirts pass off as evening attire.

Describing bad leadership instead of teaching good leadership may therefore be a more promising way of providing useful guidelines to the young — recognise something through its absence rather than through its relative presence. It’s like distinguishing fake news from serious information — the former pursues impact through the element of surprise, while the latter tends to be mundane and requiring of further thought before reaching a conclusion.

Let me first concede that this article is merely a call for the adoption of an approach rather than a penetrative analysis of what bad leadership looks like. In any case, collating and identifying the characteristics of bad leadership cannot but be a therapeutic exercise during the lockdowns and in the shadow of the present administrative uncertainties of the country.

Knowing the context

Sunzi’s The Art of War starts with an exhortation on being clear about the purpose of the endeavour (conviction in those involved of what needs doing); the hurdles in the way (that is, how the forces at work are disposed); the wisdom, resilience, humanity, courage and sincerity of the man in charge and his strategical understanding of the abovementioned factors; ascertaining the appropriate structure and delegation of power; and the acquisition and use of the proper resources.

For our purposes, this translates into conviction and the ability to convince followers; having the relevant data at hand; exercising pragmatism in constructing the mechanism given the goals at hand; creating the right institutions; and securing the economics of the enterprise. A bad leader then is identified through weaknesses in these matters.

Indeed, the classic ends with a stimulating chapter on the necessity for spies since knowledge about one’s enemy, and identifying who and what the enemy is, is central to the success of any endeavour. A persistent need to gain relevant knowledge about one’s environs and to plan accordingly marks a good leader, and the lack of this practice unveils a bad one.

In fact, a forward-thinking and capable leader should, according to Sunzi, seek victory without war. From this, I gather that a longing for fame and fortune should not decide the strategy of a good leader. Thus, a bad leader is recognised through his love of public adulation and fame.

Not being pathologically driven by promise of fame, a good leader has the patience and wisdom to identify the time and the place for action. Here, we recognise an inherent weakness in democratic systems, in that the rules of these systems require aspirant leaders to always be in the public eye, to be sensationalistic and to seek immediate impact from their actions.

The good leader, Sunzi further tells us, secures his base first. He makes himself unbeatable before giving thought to defeating his enemies. He plays defence before playing offensive, and this includes making certain that his followers are convinced of his ability to lead. The bad leader, then, is one who is too impatient to bother about making his home base resilient, loyal and confident, or to ascertain that his followers are reliable and steadfast.

With these principles in mind, Sunzi tells us that leading the many and leading the few amount to the same thing. And so, the excuse that a country is well run because it is small is not acceptable. It is but the excuse of the unimaginative leader.

Sunzi is most famous for this claim: “He who knows himself and his enemy will emerge unscathed through a hundred battles; he who knows himself but not his enemy will lose one battle for every one he wins; and he who knows neither himself nor his enemy is doomed to lose every battle.”

As a summary of all that went before, what this appears to say is that a bad leader is more or less clueless, not only about his enemy but also about himself. He does not do his homework, does not build up his base and does not understand the context in which he functions.

I feel tempted at this point to introduce another approach to defining bad leadership. A bad leader is one who claims to represent a greater purpose than what he in reality does. Illustrative of this dissonance are religious discourses, where a priest or ulama may claim to talk for all humanity but is, in effect, partisan and exclusionary in his immediate and actual purposes. This difference is often noted between the message of founders of religions and movements and the interpretations of the endless string of prophets and successors who follow.

Similarly, someone claiming to represent his country is often merely speaking on behalf of a certain interest group. He may therefore be a good leader where his constituency is concerned, but not for the country as a whole. And the nominal representative, in turn, may be considered bad by his constituents if they find him to be more limited in his interests, and so on and so forth.

This axiomatic mismatch between the nominal role and the effective role of a purported leader may be the criterion by which we come to terms with his apparent incompetence. More succinctly, one could say that there are no bad leaders, only dishonestly presented levels of interest.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His publications include, among others, the first translation of Sunzi Bingfa (Sunzi’s The Art of War) into Swedish, Sun Zis krigskonst (Stockholm University: 1997

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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