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:

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Middles (17)—Middle Management

[a] Leading RF
I have been thinking a good deal lately about leadership. Not only am I writing on the topic in the drafts for The Emperor's Teacher, but I have recently found a little extra time just to reflect on what it means in the context of my own job. You see, I just recently stepped aside from three "leadership" positions in the context of the small college where I work. For several years I have served as chair of the history department. With only a break for sabbatical, I have been chair of the Asian Studies program since 1998. Finally, I worked as president of the college's Phi Beta Kappa chapter for the last three years. 

And now, they are gone. 

This is a happy occurrence, and I find myself with a little bit more time to think about "leadership" now that I don't have to do it. Please let me be clear on one thing before we proceed, though. None of these positions is regarded in either my school or academia at large as particularly lofty. Academics most often speak of administrative responsibilities with a kind of dull horror—dull because we are inured to the necessity to "serve," and horror because we see our time slipping away in so many little coffee spoons of minutia. 

[b] Management RF
And every professor knows that the one thing s/he must never do is to express open ambition for administrative position. We are a strange tribe in that way. The people with the most influence in higher education are the administrators—mostly professors who have left the teaching ranks to lead their colleges, divisions, or universities. My "leadership" was very small potatoes—necessary, but absolutely without glory or even much compensation. Deans, vice-presidents, and presidents, though...they have influence. The trick, at least among professors, is to pretend that you aren't interested. Other professions are more honest, but the only department member who is sure to be passed over for the chair's responsibilities is the person who admits s/he wants it. We don't trust such people. That much of academic culture is both dysfunctional and incomprehensible flows from this.

Such was not the case in imperial China. As I like to frame the story, the bright school child was encouraged to keep studying, pass higher and higher levels of competitive examinations, and eventually to become one of the superstars of Chinese society—a 進士 (jinshi), or presented scholar. These men (alas, the gender choice is accurate here) studied, often into middle age, and finally mastered classics, poems, essays, and the like.

They were a little like English professors, except for one thing.

Instead of becoming teachers (people who failed exams did that), those with the very highest academic honors became administrators. They wanted to be; that was the whole point of all of the study (very little of it of a "practical" nature). They studied and, indeed, memorized large swaths of literature, wrote (well) about it, and then were put in charge of managing people and organizations. It's a little bit like a turbo-charged national MBA program requiring study of Western literature before being appointed to a middle-management position in a corporation.

And that is what I wish to consider today. Authors of business books love the word "leadership." You will have noticed by now that I can't bear to be anything but ironic with it, which is why I keep putting it in quotation marks. Let's not kid ourselves. Most of what we want to think of as "leadership" is middle-management, and in more ways than one. Not only are most such positions stuck in the middle of a corporate flow chart, but managers themselves are stuck in the middle of a sizable range of personalities and expectations.

[c] Territory RF
Let's take a look at the heart of the "stuck in the middle" kind of "leadership" project. It was one of the first positions that a Chinese official would ever receive—the position of magistrate. This was somewhat bewildering for the talented student of the Chinese literary tradition. Suddenly, he was stuck (in charge) in the middle of a territory he didn't know and where people spoke dialects with which he was unfamiliar. It was unthinkable in the Chinese empire to appoint a "local," as the logic went, in order to keep the position "impartial." He was a miniature version of the Son of Heaven, as it was often said, and in charge of the tiny "empire" of his locality. In one sense, he was in charge; in a deeper sense, he was in the middle—placed above the people of the community but below higher-ranking officials. He was also in the middle in another, extremely significant way. He had a magistrate's salary; rich, landed families had great wealth. Figure out the temptations for yourself.

The Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence
is a magistrate's handbook from the late-seventeenth century. It is chock full of how to do an autopsy, how to interrogate a suspect, and the methods for collecting local taxes. It is also a shining window onto the challenges of being a kind of chairperson of a vast and complex department of the kind that would cause a newly-minted Ph.D. college professor to consider changing occupations. Imagine, as you read the introduction to the handbook (it runs to 600 pages in English), being at the top of your class, only to confront these issues. It was the goal of every (male) school child (and his parents) in imperial China.

A Complete Book Concerning 
Happiness and Benevolence
A Manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China
Huang Liu-hung (1694)

[d] Supreme harmony RF
Since this book deals with matters of government and administration, someone may ask why the words "happiness" and "benevolence" appear in its title. This entails a little explanation. "Happiness" is mentioned here in connection with the magistrate's intention of bringing happiness to the people, while "benevolence" refers to the actions he takes to bestow benevolence upon them. It is a truism that action follows intent and that without intent there can be no action. Hence a magistrate will need to cultivate his intention to bring happiness to the people under his jurisdiction before he can take action to bestow benevolence on them. Action is the realization of intent and benevolence is the practical result.

The ancient sage Mencius said, "All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. The ancient kings had this commiserating mind, and likewise, as a matter of course, they had a commiserating government." This is, in essence, what this book is all about. In the administration of local government, nothing is more important than this simple principle.

[e] Managing RF
Why do I use the world "complete" in the title of this book? The word "complete" implies that the book covers all matters relating to the administration of the department or district government, ranging from such important duties as the collection of tax, the administration of justice, the promotion of education, and the cultivation of good social customs, to such mundane business as setting up work rules, implementing administrative regulations, enforcing disciplinary actions, and managing other everyday matters. In the performance of all these duties, the magistrate must be preoccupied with the desire to enhance benefits and eradicate abuses. From the time is appointed to his office to the time he transfers his duties to a successor, the magistrate must take every step with caution. The desire to enhance benefits and to eradicate abuses and the determination to proceed with caution are prompted by his wish to bring happiness to the people. Only when such desire and determination are realized can the magistrate bestow benevolence upon the citizens under his rule. In performing his functions, large and small, from the beginning to the end of his term of office, if the magistrate can consistently maintain his intention of bringing happiness, then whatever he does will bestow benevolence. Only then can his administration be called a "complete" one.

However, a department or district is the smallest geographical unit and the magistrate is the official of the lowest rank. Thus the happiness he can bring to and the benevolence he can bestow upon the people may be considered quite limited in scope. Alas! Those who have this opinion do not seem to know the close relationship between the magistrate and his people. Under heaven, the land is divided into departments and districts, each headed by a magistrate. If one magistrate intends to bring happiness to and bestow benevolence upon his people, the people of his district will benefit. If all magistrates think and act accordingly, then all the departments and districts will be benefited by their benevolent rule and thus all the people under heaven will enjoy the benefits. How then can we ignore local administration just because the size of the territory is small and the official status of the magistrate is low?...

The magistrate's position is comparable to that of the head of a family. When old, young, male, or female members of a family suffer hunger, cold, sickness, or misfortune, they will plead for help from the head of the family. The head of the family cannot feel at ease until every member has a full stomach, warm clothes on his back, and good health. Clearly, the responsibilities of the magistrates are, on the one hand, implementing the policies claimed by [the empire's] elder statesmen...from above, and on the other, detecting the hidden worries of the people within their respective jurisdictions with the aim of remedying them. How can we say that the responsibilities of the magistrates are not onerous?[1]

[f] Happiness; benevolence RF
[1] Huang Liu-hung, A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence: A Manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China Translated by Djang Chu (Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1984), 53-55.

Huang Liu-hung. A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence: A Manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China Translated by Djang Chu. Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1984.

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