The Art of War by Sun Tzu is often used as a device to teach strategic thinking in business. As the title suggests, the book is about waging war, but it is used as a metaphor for dealing with competitive situations for individuals and organizations. Lessons such as choosing your battles, knowing your adversaries, and setting priorities are certainly important. But what struck me is not Sun Tzu’s discussion of how best to win battles, but what he had to say about leadership. The important message here is that passive leadership is the worst kind.
From The Art of War to Ohio State University
Most of The Art of War is concerned with strategy and tactics for waging war but interspersed are comments about how to lead followers. There are two principles that Sun Tzu notes. Leaders should care about their followers, as he says, “treat them as beloved sons”. Second, leaders must provide direction and not be weak or passive. Twenty-five hundred years later, the importance of caring and strength was rediscovered in the Ohio State Leadership Studies. The researchers at Ohio State University noted that there are two important dimensions of leadership.
- Consideration: Leaders should show concern for their followers and care about their welfare. This includes accepting follower input, keeping followers informed, and looking out for their welfare.
- Initiating Structure: Leaders should organize the activities of followers, so they know what is expected of them and the leader. It should be clear what followers should do and how they should do it.
These two dimensions of leadership go hand in hand for those in supervisory positions in organizations. Initiating structure means organizing the work and making assignments. This approach can seem overbearing if it is not tempered by personal concern. The supervisor who is high on both dimensions will clarify expectations yet is open to input by employees that can provide vital feedback that what is being proposed is problematic. Such supervisors are willing to adjust if employees have a better way.
A supervisor who is high on initiating structure but low on consideration will have unhappy employees who view their leader as autocratic and uncaring. Such employees will have difficulty staying motivated and might even sabotage the work. A supervisor who is high on consideration but low on initiating structure will come across as passive and perhaps too nice. Not only will they fail to get the job done, but their employees will still be unhappy, just for a different reason.
Passive Leadership Is the Worst Kind
Passive leaders are those who fail to provide direction to followers. There can be many reasons for inaction including avoidance of conflict with others, fear of doing the wrong thing, or uncertainty about what is the appropriate action. Regardless of the reason, and whether passive leaders are considerate or not, passive leadership is the worst kind. Followers might accept an inconsiderate leader who provides clear direction that enables those followers to be successful on the job. Passive leaders can be even worse by getting in the way of success.
I have been part of two research teams that published studies about how passive leadership can be destructive. The first by Xin Xuan Che, Zhiqing Zhou, Stacey Kessler and Paul Spector was published in the peer-reviewed journal Work & Stress. This study showed that employees with passive supervisors experienced burnout and signs of physical stress. Employees with passive leaders felt their workloads were heavy, most likely due to a lack of structure. The second by Stacey Kessler, Kari Bruursema, Burcu Rodopman, and Paul Spector was published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. It showed how employees with passive supervisors were likely to feel distressed at work, get into conflicts with coworkers, and lash out by engaging in counterproductive work behavior which consists of destructive acts directed at the organization.
Employees need direction so that they know what is expected. They also need someone to coordinate their activities, especially when their work is interconnected. Often the specific direction is not as important as having a direction. Allowing everyone to choose their own path will usually lead to a lack of coordination, conflict among employees, and stress.
The wisdom of Sun Tzu and the Ohio State Leadership researchers is that the best leaders are those who care about their followers and provide them with structure. The leader who does both is an active leader who creates a climate in which followers can thrive.
SUBSCRIBE TO PAUL’S BLOG: Enter your e-mail and click SUBSCRIBE