What Makes a Great Leader

Unquestionably the single most important decision a sponsor makes is who will lead the initiative.

I have found it useful to return to the classics when asked to give guidance on this topic. Borrowing from writings on ancient Chinese military strategies*, T’ai Kung advised King Wu that when selecting a general, 5 critical talents and 10 errors must be considered. While waging war and leading projects are obviously different activities, from a leadership perspective they share more similarities than differences.


  • Courage: being courageous blocks being overwhelmed
  • Wisdom: being wise avoids being forced into turmoil
  • Benevolence: being benevolent shows respect for the team
  • Trustworthiness: being trustworthy counteracts deceitfulness
  • Loyalty: being loyal prevents treachery


  • Being courageous and treating death lightly: can be destroyed by violence
  • Being hasty and impatient: can be destroyed by persistence
  • Being greedy and loving profit: can be bribed
  • Being benevolent but unable to inflict suffering: can be worn down
  • Being wise but afraid: can be distressed
  • Being trustworthy and liking to trust others: can be deceived
  • Being scrupulous and incorruptible but not loving men: can be insulted
  • Being wise but indecisive: can be suddenly attacked
  • Being resolute and self-reliant: can be confounded by events
  • Being fearful while liking to entrust responsibility to others: can be tricked

As T’ai Kung said, “The fate of the state lies with the general.” So to the fate of an initiative lies with its leader.

*From “The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, T’ai Kung’s Six Secret Teachings: A Discussion of Generals”, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer, Westview Press, 1993