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, June 13, 2011

Living and Learning (9)—Like Water

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] Placid  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.
Like Water

Regaining the Way, getting back on the road after being run onto the shoulder—as happened to poor Mr. He—is the skill that we must all learn to refine. For most of us, in most situations, we wipe our hands, brush the dust off of our clothes, straighten our collars, and get on with it, perhaps with a dose of wariness that may or may not be useful to us the next time that we encounter difficulty. We might be tempted by ideas of revenge or other kinds of countermeasures. Sometimes we can't stop thinking about it, and our focus changes from the path we were following to getting even.

This may not be the best decision, as anyone who has seen a sure penalty in a football game (let's say there was blatant "holding" on the offensive line) turn into offsetting penalties when the other player loses his temper and slaps the offender. It might feel good, but now things are really off-course. How can we stay on-course, then? 

The key, many early Chinese thinkers agreed, is to mirror the ways of water. As the early philosophers of many of our traditions were fond of noting, calm waters form to their landscapes, moving around and embracing stones, logs, and vegetation. Yet rushing water can move rocks with speed and ferocious intensity. Water is hard, yet pliable—always adaptable and changing to circumstances. Perhaps Laozi, the quintessential poet of the Way, said it best:

There is nothing under heaven more weak and pliant than water, yet in attacking things that are rigid and strong, nothing can surpass it…As for the weak overcoming the strong and the pliant overcoming the rigid, there is not one who lacks the knowledge of how to do so—yet none are able to put it into practice.

So conditioned are we to expect the harsh to dominate the quiet that it comes as a surprise when we see the rigid and overconfident—from the Qin dynasty eunuch Zhao Gao to our relative contemporary Joseph McCarthy—undone seemingly by their own hubris and webs of allegations. Laozi notes "simply by not contending, rancor is avoided." The most difficult part is to understand that these words are not meant to be "weak." It takes a strong leader to keep the goal, the Way, ever-in-mind.

People forget, though, and confrontation often escalates. One bad turn, followed by another in response, can lead to deep hostility—warring states, for example, becoming Warring States. It is difficult to remember that we can spend our lives avenging ills or we can get on with it and work toward our objectives.

Perhaps the most-read conflict management book of all time remains one of the least understood—Sunzi's Art of War. There, the most important lessons to be learned are when to advance, when to retreat, and when to run like hell. The key to that lies in understanding water.

The principle for deploying soldiers is to emulate water.  Water flows from higher to lower ground.  Water changes according to terrain.  Water does not have one shape.  Flowing water constantly changes directions with the terrain—it responds, it carves.

Formulated in this way, we can see that it is not just "softness" or receptivity that works change in times of conflict. It is water's focus and endurance, its unremitting pressure over time, which cannot be withstood by the rigid or the arrogant. Many phrases have been used to approximate the idea—integrity, staying above the fray—but Sunzi simply maintains that the concentrated attacks of those who would do harm are no match for those who stay on course, on the path, on the Way. It is not pugilism, but it is certainly not pacifism, either. The Art of War focuses on success in warfare, and Sunzi's advice was meant to give practical aid to rulers who lived in a contentious environment. For him, military success and patience were parts of a whole.

A hint of just how difficult this is to grasp is evident in an advertisement I saw for a major consulting firm a few years ago. It had a large, elaborate sword with the following caption beneath it:

Does your consultant quote The Art of War, yet shy away from battle?

My answer would be that, yes, if she has read the book she does, indeed. Understand the difference here. This is neither stoicism nor turning of cheeks. It is simply "not contending," and relying on the virtues of "formlessness." As that great North Dakota born "Daoist," former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, once said: "Only show anger when it is in your own best interest to do so." Like Sunzi, Secretary Christopher understood water's capacity to effect change.

[b] Implacable  RF
 "Water's" power and resilience is one of the hardest things for all students of management (and life's challenges) to understand, so conditioned are we to meet words with words, weapons with weapons. A sensitive grasp of water's power is an offensive, as well as a defensive, tool—and an extraordinarily effective one at that. 

For years I have tried to explain this as an active concept, and one opportunity came some time back at a lecture series I gave at Waseda University in Tokyo. After three weeks of listening to my analyses of the theory and practice of "remonstrance"—the responsibility of underlings to criticize superiors who have made serious errors—one young Japanese student was delightfully unwilling to think only of my historical and literary examples. She asked how she might express such criticism, even if she were far outranked in an office setting. In times of relative peace, criticizing one's boss is as big as crises get. I spent over twenty minutes doing my best to answer her question with practical advice drawn from historical and contemporary examples. I suspect, however, that my brief initial answer might have been the best:

Be like water, knowing when to flow gently and when to unleash torrents.

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

Comprehensive Mirroring
We return to where we started (but with insight into how people lived and learned in early China)—the fighting and contention that marked the Warring States period. That is precisely where Sima Guang began his managerial narrative of Chinese history. Right smack-dab in the middle of trouble.

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