Thursday, 18 July 2013

Agile, 1300 A.D.

I currently read myself to sleep with "Three Kingdoms" by Lou Guanzhong (written ~1350 A.D), as translated by Moss Roberts.
There was an interesting segment yesterday which I'd like to share. In it, a learned man illustrates his prince's virtues - and comes close to things I would value today.
I'll try myself at a commentary in the traditional style.

Do you agree with my interpretation? Do you know of similar accounts in other ancient texts?

The Situation

China, 200 A.D.
It is a time of civil strife. Warlords from across the empire battle for supremacy.

Cao Cao, on of the main contenders, was made Regent and is the de-facto ruler of the empire, reducing the Emperor himself to little more than a figurehead.
Meanwhile, Yuan Shao, a northern warlord, is in open rebellion against the dynasty.

Amidst schemes and counter-schemes, both rulers try to rally troops and leaders to their side.
Eventually, Yuan Shao launches another campaign and Cao Cao finds himself outnumbered.
In this situation, Cao Cao turns to his chief strategist Guo Jia and asks him to evaluate the situation.
He receives a surprising account of lean management for an answer.

The Text

(The Text itself is in bold black, while my thoughts are plain grey.)

"I'd love to teach him a lesson," [Cao Cao] went on. "But do you think we're strong enough?"

Guo Jia replied, 
"[...]Now then, Yuan Shao has ten weak points and you have ten advantages. The size of his forces should not intimidate us.

The size of a force - military or commercial - does not matter. It is the quality of personnel that determines success, not the sheer amount. 

First, Yuan Shao governs with a profusion of rules and regulations; your order is simple and not constraining. Thus, you excel in principles of government.

Through excessive rules, Yuan Shao restricts his commanders' abilities. Even the best aide can not work properly when bureaucracy won't let him. By naming goals to reach, not ways to get there, the wise prince allows those below to think for themselves and judge the situation as it arises.

Second, Yuan Shao acts without legitimacy; you lead with the imperial sanction. Thus, your cause is true and honorable.

Legitimacy, and thus popular support. can be granted or earned. 
By his title and association with the (proper) imperial order, Cao Cao enjoys the people's support, whereas Yuan Shao has to first prove his worth to the common man and lesser leaders. 
Both the official bureaucracy and people around him are in favor of him who works in sync with the organization.

Third, since the reigns of [former emperors] Huan and Ling, court rule has suffered from  laxity and Yuan Shao, too, has the same habit; you require strict discipline. Thus, you excel in administration.

Through the excess of rules, it is hard to see where the leader's goals and the action taken align. If every rule counts, as in Cao Cao's case, things become simple: You either follow them harmoniously, or you don't.
Thus, less rules support stricter discipline, as misconduct becomes more evident and its impact more profound.

Fourth, Yuan Shao is ostensibly tolerant but inwardly envious and awards appointments mainly to his relatives; you are outwardly direct and inwardly understanding and employ men according to their ability. Thus, you excel in judgement.

If you want to work with the best, tolerate their quirks, but speak frankly if their behaviour and your goals get misaligned. Only if you do this, you can rely on and trust each other.

Fifth, Yuan Shao makes plans but rarely a decision; you formulate a plan and act on it. Thus, you excel in strategy.

Stop starting. Start finishing.

Sixth, Yuan Shao seeks only to enhance his reputation; you treat others with utter sincerity. Thus, you excel in morality.

In the end, you will be judged by your results. 
Only if words, actions and results match you can build a lasting reputation.

Seventh, Yuan Shao is solicitous of those close to him, indifferent to those farther away; you have an all-embracing concern. Thus, you excel in humanity.

By treating subordinates close to his command better than those in the field, Yuan Shao mis-rewards their action. 
To make decisions in a fair manner, you have weigh the interests of all your partners and clients, no matter how frequent the interaction.

Eighth, Yuan Shao is often misled by petty slander; you are impervious to gossip. Thus, you excel in discretion.

A wise leader learns to distinguish rumor and slander from actual concern, and acts accordingly.

Ninth, Yuan Shao does not distinguish right and wrong, you have rules and regulations that are strict and clear. Thus, you excel in civil administration.

Not only does he make up and excess of rules and let discipline slip, Yuan Shao is also unable to judge whether a broken rule was wrongly broken and requires punishment.
This illustrates the importance of proper administration once again: 
Only if rules are simple and few, it is possible to know them all.
Only if rules are simple and few, it is possible to see them broken.
Only if rules are simple and few, you can punish offenders without doubt.

Tenth, Yuan Shao is inclined to take empty stances but is ignorant of the essentials of warfare; you have won battles even when outnumbered, waging war with uncanny skill. Thus, you excel in arms.

Despite all of the other advantages, Cao Cao would not stand a chance if Yuan Shao had demonstrated his superiority before. A proven leader - with a proven team - is as important as are the other virtues, as experience and success yield greater legitimacy.

You will prevail over Yuan Shao by virtue of these ten points of excellence."

Cao Cao smiled appreciatively. "I don't think," he said, "I am adequate to live up to such a description."