Critical thinking is an integral part of any leader’s personal armoury.  Without this ability, leaders will not be able to solve problems efficiently and make effective decisions.

It is possible to develop your critical thinking style by paying attention to famed ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu’s treatise, The Art Of War, written almost 2,500 years ago.

The world famous work has influenced military commanders such as Napoleon, Montgomery, MacArthur and Mao Zedong. In the corporate world, this treatise has become a useful reference point on how to manage a business successfully.  By using the various strategies suggested by Sun Tzu, it becomes possible to become an excellent critical thinker.

The first five chapters of the Art of War lay the foundation of how a military commander can lead his men to victory.  They are: Laying plans, waging war, attack by stratagem, tactical dispositions and energy.

These five concepts can be adapted metaphorically to direct one’s thinking into a critical mode.

Laying plans

Sun Tzu said methods and discipline must be used in laying plans for an invasion. This will involve marshalling the army in its proper subdivisions, graduation of ranks among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army and the control of military expenditure.

Applying it to the corporate world, this would mean that one must know where one stands and what the problem or issue really is (proper subdivision). Then it is important to see who are involved to help resolve the matter (officers). Data and facts are needed to come to a working solution to the problem at hand (maintenance of roads). Finally, one has to consider the amount of time, effort and money that is involved in resolving the problem (expenditure).

Waging war

Sun Tzu said only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. This means that a military commander must be clear about his purpose for waging the war and must be driven by a necessity to engage in it.

Likewise, critical thinking involves having a clear perception of why there is a need to think as such and what needs to be done to achieve this purpose.

Unlike other kind of thinking skills, critical thinking is purposeful and structured and usually it is used when there is a need to find a long lasting solution or to make a decision based on several options that might sometimes create an ethical dilemma.

Attack by stratagem

Here, Sun Tzu mentioned that in the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.  He also mentions that the highest form of generalship is to thwart the enemy’s plan and not to besiege walled cities.

This means that when you think critically it is important that you try to resolve the whole issue and when making a decision that all relevant factors are considered.  Once that decision is made you need to stand by that decision.

It would be pointless to linger or reflect upon having made a decision only to realise that this might not have been the best. It is much better to make a decision rather than lingering in a state of limbo (Not to besiege walled cities).

Tactical dispositions

Sun Tzu here mentioned that the good fighters of the old first put themselves beyond the possibilities of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity to defeat the enemy.

As a critical thinker, it is important that you have everything you need to resolve an issue or make a decision. Nothing should be left to chance. Then you have to see the most opportune moment to put your thoughts into action.


According to Sun Tzu, in all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but the indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

When you engage in critical thinking, your intention is to find a solution that can work. 

When you have a situation that has several possible solutions and you have to make a decision, you can use the “indirect method” to see which of these options might possibly serve your interest or your company’s and gives you the best returns of investment without compromising your moral values or any legal boundaries.

By detailing and applying the metaphorical meaning of the Art of War, you can hone your critical thinking skill and become a valuable asset to your organisation as well as achieve personal success.