From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Living and Learning (12)—Teaching the Emperor

Click here to go to section one of "Living and Learning."
Click below for the other "Living and Learning" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
The Emperor's Teacher—Chapter Two 
During the month of June I will be posting segments of The Emperor's Teacher (the big business book that will rock the world). Chapter two is called "Living and Learning," and forms (along with chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel") the first section of a three-part book.
If you have read The Art of War, you have arrived at the doorstep. Still, no one ever managed anything in China having just read Sunzi (Sun-tzu), but don't despair. You are now ready for what comes next in leadership. Compiled nine-hundred years ago, it is the greatest management book ever written, and there are only two problems: (1) it is in "medieval" Chinese; (2) it is 10,000 pages long. No worries, though. That's what I am here for. I have been studying this stuff for thirty years, and I have been waiting for you. Welcome. 歡迎. 
Let's begin to study real Chinese management together.
[a] Gateway  RF
After reading chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel," you will have some acquaintance with Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror (資治通鑒). Now, it is time to consider how people learned "management" lessons in early China. From there, we will begin to tackle the heart of the management book in the rest of this summer's entries (July and August), which will deal with practical lessons from the Comprehensive Mirror.
Don't worry.  If you want to start here and loop back to chapter one (Breaking the Vessel) in due time, that is fine.  This chapter should stand on its own as a way of thinking about living and learning (and living) at any time and in any place.
Teaching the Emperor

So what does it mean to " power"? I am, of course, playing on a common English saying that is used in all sorts of contexts people have taken little time to analyze. To "speak truth to power" is a significant idea. The phrase has grown hackneyed and a little trite from overuse, but it is not difficult to see just where its very meaningfulness originates. We are already dealing with the hierarchical dynamic that will be an important part of this book's lessons. To "speak truth to power" means channeling one's emotions and garnering one's arguments in pursuit of a higher (and more than occasionally "dangerous") purpose. This is important stuff. It can be used in the pursuit of of ambitions, and it can involve grandstanding. Usually it does not, and this has a great deal to do with fact that it carries risk.

Locked inside that little saying is something else, too. It carries the idea that the "truth" that is spoken is important—that it might well make a difference if the listener ("power") steps back and, well, listens. If this were easy it would get less attention. The very circumstances of speaker and listener make it fraught with difficulty and more than occasionally a bit of intrigue. Usually, listener and speaker have something to gain and to lose—and it is not always clear what those "things" are. And finally, as the saying implies in English, the stakes go beyond the little social dyad of speaker and listener. The consequences seem to matter.

Sounds challenging, and a little scary. What if we were to make a life of it?

I am serious. What if we were to imagine "speaking truth to power" over the course of a lifetime? What if the heart of that truth speaking continued—month after month, and year after year—to influence those in authority? What would that look like?

[b] One approach  RF
I suspect "it" would look a great deal like Confucius or Mencius...or Plato. This is not a new idea, although the phrasing is a little different. The problem with "speaking truth to power" (as we will see in the chapter on remonstrance later in this book) is that—if not extremely well managed—it is a one-shot deal at worst or, more commonly, a rhetoric of diminishing returns. No one likes a critic, so if criticism is not built into the very fabric of political life it is doomed to failure or irrelevance. This is something that both critics and the criticized need to understand. All too often, they don't.

But power. That might well be something else. And yes, that is precisely my point. Sima Guang's ideal audience in the Comprehensive Mirror was not necessarily the emperors who would read his text (although surely he understood their importance in the project). In other words, I think that it is a small but serious misinterpretation to think of the Comprehensive Mirror primarily as a text meant to teach rulers how to manage the empire.

This may sound a bit startling after all we've been through together, but stay with me. It will be worth it.

So who was his primary audience? Well, it was certainly not the modern-day historians (Asian and Western) who mine his text for information and are utterly deceived (in Sima's parlance) by grubbing this fact here and that snatch of text there. No, it's not them. They are the ones who search the section that details, say, the year 657 and try to separate—in the memorable phrasing of faulty history primers—the "wheat" (the information, the realpolitik) from the "chaff" (the cosmology, the rhetoric in some of the memorials to the throne). When they are done they have a worthless little pile of facts that have been ripped from their larger managerial and rhetorical context. No, they don't get it at all. Indeed, they have deceived themselves and will soon do the same "for" others.

So if it wasn't the ruler and it wasn't serious, "modern" historians, who might this ideal reader be? It seems clear to me that Sima's ideal reader was the government official who could influence a leader (or leaders) over and over—the kind of person who combined deep learning with an abiding sense of what was important (someone who knew "how to keep the main thing...the main thing"). This person taught his peers and his superiors ongoing lessons that went beyond the daily heartbeat of politics. He "taught" for decades and influenced everything from overall approaches to specific policy issues. This person was a thinker and a doer.

This person was a lot like the author. Sima was Sima's ideal reader.

It is as though Sima was saying that the whole point of education is to teach us that we have a great deal to learn, and then to learn for ourselves (through the practice of life) how much more we have to learn...and then to pass it on to others. Think about that for a while. The Comprehensive Mirror seeks to teach very able readers both the lessons of the past  and how to teach, convey, articulate, and further those lessons in the present and down the ages.

Yes, the Comprehensive Mirror—this is my opinion after studying the text for three decades—is a teachers' manual, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Of course it teaches very valuable lessons of great, practical use to managers. Of course. What makes this book so special (and this is precisely the reason why people read it, and not just The Art of War, when they actually had the responsibility of running things) is because Sima Guang is a teacher of teachers. The Comprehensive Mirror is his lesson plan.

Think, again, for a moment. How many business books have you read that stress that the lessons contained therein cannot be applied unless others can be convinced of their efficacy? If you have read many such books, you have heard this a great deal. My complaint is that the authors all too rarely stress that this is the whole point. Understanding the issues and then building a team, a group, a movement—this is the goal, not garnering a few strategies that you alone will use against the big, scary world.
[c] Pathway  RF
And that is what I mean by "being" the emperor's teacher. It lies in allowing ourselves to be taught, teaching ourselves, and teaching others. I am not arguing that our goals should be to function as advisers in the shadows—to aspire to be undersecretary of something. Yet on some level we are all—and are always—undersecretaries, and that is as it should be. Even the emperor (the Son of Heaven 天子) was accountable. Just think about it. Sometimes we are "in charge." Almost always, even when "in charge," we are accountable to others. For every stint we serve as "secretary," we serve ten times as "undersecretary." Persuading others—on a level that has been "relatively understudied" in management schools (this is the polite way to put it)—is the heart of the matter, and it goes well beyond simplistic appeals for "managing your boss."

No, this is the whole ball of jade, people. The demands are formidable, but the rewards go so far beyond finding your next batch of fresh cheese chunks that you owe it to yourselves (and the "emperors" in our midst) to stay on the path.

Living and Learning 1          Living and Learning 2            Living and Learning 3           Living and Learning 4
Living and Learning 5          Living and Learning 6            Living and Learning 7           Living and Learning 8
Living and Learning 9          Living and Learning 10          Living and Learning 11         Living and Learning 12

Chapter Three—Roles
Part two, the heart of The Emperor's Teacher, begins with a full discussion of the roles we lead, and manage, in both our work and our leisure. Sima Guang began the Comprehensive Mirror in the Warring States period, as we have seen. What I have not mentioned yet is that he began with precisely this topic. Roles. Be there.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rob,

    Thank you for yet another thought provoking post.
    I can not help but remember Latour, when I read teaching the emperor and in particular:

    "...Yet on some level we are all—and are always—undersecretaries, and that is as it should be. Even the emperor (the Son of Heaven 天子) was accountable. Just think about it. Sometimes we are "in charge." Almost always, even when "in charge," we are accountable to others. For every stint we serve as "secretary," we serve ten times as "undersecretary." Persuading others—on a level that has been "relatively understudied" in management schools (this is the polite way to put it)—is the heart of the matter, and it goes well beyond simplistic appeals for "managing your boss."

    Latour writes:
    "tout nous regarde et surtout le Tout et il faut trouver la bonne manière a s’intéresser a tout. Chacun doit s’occuper/ se mêler de tout mais sous formes « extrêmement variées « . Sortir de sa boite /son rôle pour effacer les limites de dedans et de dehors" in : La société comme possession (renversement de toutes hypothèses de sciences sociales) Latour sur Tarde .

    "On descend vers le pouvoir, on n’y monte pas." (idem)
    "Il n’au que des chefs d’orchestre que par les preuves des répétions ( Fellini : Prova d’orchestra)" (idem).

    or about management:
    "an actor-network contains not only people, but also material objects, non-humans, and organizations." from: Refection on Actor network Theorists

    "ANT [actor network theory] assumes that all the elements in a network, human and non-human, can and should be described in the same terms. This is called the principle of generalized symmetry. The rationale for this is that differences between them are generated in the network of relations, and should not be presupposed." ( idem)


    ANT sacholars locate agency neither in human "subjects" nor in non-human "objects," but in heterogeneous associations of humans and nonhumans" ( ibid)

    " actor-networks are potentially transient, existing in a constant making and re-making. This means that relations need to be repeatedly “performed” or the network will dissolve. (The teachers need to come to work each day, and the computers need to keep on running.)"(ibid)