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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (12)—Managing History

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
[a] Marketing strategy
[b] The App of War
This month's main entries (entitled “Breaking the Vessel”) will chronicle an author and a book—Sima Guang (1019-1086) and the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling, which was submitted to the (Northern) Song dynasty throne in what we in the West call January of 1085. I like to say that this book is the missing piece in management education, during which MBA students read carefully through translations of the Art of War and then seem to think that they understand Chinese management thought. (Good luck with that, pardner). I like to say that Sunzi (Sun-tzu) is “lunch” and the Comprehensive Mirror is “what comes next—it’s what’s for supper.”  It is essential reading for everyone at any level of management—from parent and foreman to ruler of the world (and everything in between). The problem is that it is 10,000 pages long (I am not kidding) and is in Chinese—“medieval” Chinese, at that. That is where I come in. I want to help you.  
Welcome. 歡迎. I have been waiting for you.

Managing History
[c] Wang Arbor
Nine centuries later, in the autumn of 2000, I was invited to give a lecture on Sima Guang's historical thought at the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies. Having studied the Comprehensive Mirror for two decades at that point, I was prepared to speak to the audience about Sima Guang's "exilic response"—the manner in which Sima's historical writing was a way of answering his critics and showing them, to his mind, how very wrong they were for forcing him from office. The audience was ample and attentive, and in my allotted forty-five minutes I was able to touch upon several of the themes we have covered so far in "Breaking the Vessel."

[d] Wang Am-sure
I finished my lecture, spent some time answering questions from students and professors in the audience, and had just finished packing up my notes as I checked my schedule for details about my lunch appointment. Leaving the now empty room, I looked up to find a young man confronting me. He blocked the doorway, his arms outspread. Visibly angry, he growled that he was a doctoral student from China, and demanded an explanation as to why I would speak in a positive (I would argue "neutral") way about a "traitor" such as Sima Guang. Wang Anshi, he told me, had clearly been right, and had the best interests of the economy, foreign policy, and the social order in mind. Wang's "New Laws" would have transformed China, if only Sima Guang and the Luoyang critics had not interfered—if only they would have been quiet in exile, and had not criticized Wang...or written that book.

[e] Trent
Although I was taken aback, I should not have been surprised. These arguments have gone back-and-forth in China. Even in the last thirty years I have seen twisting differences of reasoning about who was on the side of the people nine hundred years ago. Sometimes it is Wang, and sometimes it is Sima. In the People's Republic of China, the largest cluster usually sides with Wang (this is by no means unanimous, though, and seems to shift with the prevailing political winds). In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, Sima gets a much larger nod of approval. 

Here is the most fascinating point, though—almost no one lacks an opinion. Imagine debating the New Deal with almost anyone on the street—in fact, imagine debating the Council of Trent. I have often had such discussions about Sima and Wang with cab drivers, shopkeepers, and coffee shop patrons while traveling in China. The issues are alive for people, and still matter in often profound ways many centuries later. The experience in Ann Arbor gave me pause. I was again reminded of how even mundane activities in Chinese history (such as a debate at court in the eleventh century) could have far-reaching implications.

[f] Summer 1085
In the chapters that follow, we will examine more deeply the lessons of Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror. For now, though, it is enough to break the hold of the heroic story. Big people need to get over it. Managers, especially, need to grow out of it. The heroic tale doesn't teach us as much as the accurate portrayal of a great, though challenged life. Isn't this the point that Sima Guang had made throughout the Comprehensive Mirror? Isn't this why he chose to write a history that focused as much on periods of disunion as unification (and isn't this why such periods in our own history—the Civil War, for instance—remain vibrant)? 

It is a point we will discuss on these pages in the coming weeks. No company goes from brilliant idea to Fortune 500 with nary a downturn. And the real point is this—we can learn enormous loads of information from precisely those downturns and dead-ends. You already know this, or you wouldn't have made it through several decades of successes and life. It's a lot like golf...or baseball (much of life is). You don't give up on your round because of a bogey on the second hole, nor feel assured of victory by a home run in the top of the third inning. The Sima Guang story might be thought of like a double-bogey on the eighteenth (or, despite a big lead, giving up three runs in the ninth). It's up to us to decide if we'll call his life a "blown save" or penalize him for signing a wrong scorecard. The analogies could go on (I am thinking of sewing and auto repair at the moment), but I suspect that you get the idea.

[g] Rural library
It is possible to learn a great deal, even from people with whom we might disagree, or who might have made choices of which we disapprove. Sometimes, in fact, the lessons are clearest precisely when we are not clouded by agreement or identification. Hero-worship is not often conducive to the best management teaching, and it doesn't take Charles ("I am not a role model") Barkley to show it. Both Liang Qichao and Mao Zedong (he of the donkey-riding textual analysis) disagreed with Sima's conservative political approach. I, too, have often winced at some of his pronouncements—especially those from the summer of 1085 (let's call that the bottom of the eighth). 

[j] Equally so
[i] Problematic
Sometimes, trying to give listeners a sense of Sima's brilliance and obstinacy, I have likened him to a cross between T.S. Eliot and Rupert Murdoch. Both were probably cute, bright kids, yet they grew up to be complex, problematic adults who achieved enormous success in their realms of influence. Hero stories? We don't need no stinkin' hero stories. We need the complexity of life as lived. I want leadership lessons, not fairy tales. I want the clunky, flawed narrative of living just a little bit too long instead of "happily ever after." If you want to be a great manager, you should, too.

[k] Lesson planning
And here is the point for Sima Guang. Even those who have recoiled from his politics have been shaped by his teachings—by the historical and managerial lessons in the Comprehensive Mirror. People live their lives in complex and sometimes decidedly "un-triumphal" ways. Those who eventually serve as "the emperor's teacher"—the teacher of humanity—create a rare combination of attention to the present with a sense of "what might be." They create, in short, ways to teach others how to manage their lives and those around them. They do this in writing and in their actions, and sometimes they err. If their lessons are weighty, they are the teachers of emperors, and anyone else who will ponder their lessons.

Mao Zedong understood this. Both Emperors Yingzong and Shenzong understood it. After a quarter century of Comprehensive Mirror studies, I have come to understand it, too. 

I'll be your guide. Let's see where the lessons of The Emperor's Teacher might take us.

June 2011
Living and Learning in Early China
This month's posts represent chapter two in the growing management book The Emperor's Teacher. Now that we've gotten a good sense of Sima Guang and The Comprehensive Mirror (in "Breaking the Vessel"), we will begin to explore various ways that learning took place in early China—all of the way up to the lessons found in The Art of War. We'll encounter some of the most famous (and quite often hilarious) stories in early Chinese literature, and examine ways that various thinkers sought to "manage" that complex enterprise that encompassed a massive territory and figures from the emperor and his (or her) officials all of the way down to the common people. Management books have not covered this territory before. We will, and you'll be that much farther down the road to managerial greatness of your own.

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