The Five Virtues of Leadership, The Way, and Modern Politicians

Please forgive the long post, but I was re-reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and felt compelled to do a little modern day application.

Sun Tzu: Therefore, measure in terms of five things, use these assessments to make comparison, and thus find out what the conditions are. The five things are the way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.


Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.

Du Mu says “The way of the ancient kings was to consider humaneness foremost, while the martial artists considered intelligence foremost. This is because intelligence involves ability to plan and to know when to change effectively. Trustworthiness means to make people sure of punishment or reward. Humaneness means love and compassion for people, being aware of their toils. Courage means to seize opportunities to make certain of victory, without vacillation. Sternness means to establish discipline in the ranks by strict punishments.”

Jia Lin says “Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive sternness of command results in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a military leader.”

The analyses by the commentators Du and Jia and give us definition and drawbacks of reliance on any one trait.

  • Intelligence means to have the ability to plan and to know when to change effectively. However, relying only on intelligence can lead to rebelliousness.
  • Trustworthiness means to make people sure of punishment or reward. However, relying only on trustworthiness can lead to folly.
  • Humaneness means to have love and compassion for the people and being aware of their toils. However, reliance on just humaneness leads to weakness.
  • Courage means to seize opportunities to make certain of victory without vacillation. However, relying only on courage results in violence.
  • Sternness means to establish discipline in the ranks by strict punishment. However, relying only on sternness leads to cruelty.

Jia, therefore, tells us that to have all five of these traits makes one a successful leader. Each one offers temperance to the other.

  1. Courage without intelligence leads to rash action.
  2. Without sternness, you cannot have trustworthiness, and vice versa.
  3. Humaneness and courage alone lead to ideological purity, whereas intelligence tempers them with practicality and nuance.
  4. One must have courage and intelligence to be stern and to be trusted.
  5. One must be humane to prevent sternness from becoming cruel.
  6. One cannot be trustworthy if one is not humane.

Sun Tzu, prior to this, however, mentions the Way, which cannot exist without the five virtues of leadership.

Sun Tzu: The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life, without fear of danger.

Cao Cao says “This means guiding them by instruction and direction. Danger means distrust.”

Zhang Yu says “If the people are treated with benevolence, faithfulness, and justice, then they will be of one mind, and will be glad to serve.”

Jia Ling says “If the leaders can ve humane and just, sharing both the gains and the troubles of the people, then the troops with be loyal and and naturally identify with the interests of the leadership.”

Cao, Zhang, and Jia all agree – government that acts as though it is separate from its people will not be able to motivate the people to work alongside it. This is how a divide grows between the people and the capital, and in history, this is seen often. The five virtues of leadership lead to the Way, and the Way leads to harmony between a government and its people.

While politicians may have one or more of the five virtues, very few in modern times have all five, or, if they do, they are unable to gain any additional power to use them due to the interference and stubborn refusal of the leadership to recognize strength of character and place it where it can do the most good. Cronyism is seen as being rewarded, while virtue is seen as being punished. Whether or not these are true is irrelevant – they are perceived as true.

One of the biggest flaws of modern politics is that politicians believe that, because of their power, they have access to information and channels the average American does not. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes it is not. Because of this belief, however, the politician justifies not working with their constituents’ wishes or, in many cases, actively working against them. When the constituency feels they are losing their politician to outside forces (Washington D.C.’s many shiny lures),  this results in primary challenges in election cycles and can lead to sweeping change in the electoral field. Sometimes, this constituency rage can overcome even the biggest hurdles of electing someone new – incumbency and money.

It is not something that can or will happen every election cycle, but it has happened with increased frequency in the last decade (2006 to 2008 was a Democratic sweep, while 2014 was a continuation of 2010’s Republican sweep). Only 2012 exists as a cycle in which this was not the case, and this can be attributed to the belief that outraged voters did not feel the alternative to the negative force was a better alternative. Mitt Romney did not do enough for voters to see him as anything other than what already existed in the White House at that time.

In a Democratic/Republican system, it is very difficult to determine through campaigns and press releases which politicians have “The Way” or the five virtues, and this is the main drawback of that system. Once elected, we can gauge legislative votes and see a trend of loyalty to one group or another. This is the best way to determine who truly has those traits, but it comes at the cost of allowing them to do what a constituent might consider dangerous voting.


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