Ancient Chinese Leadership Advice and How Not to Follow

Posted on November 2, 2010


Let me tell you a story…

Over two thousand years ago, during the Warring States Period in China, a simple old woman had the common sense to realize that people need to be decently fed.

Zi Fa was a general in the State of Chu. In a battle with the State of Qin, his food supplies were running out and he had to dispatch one of his men back home and asked the King of Chu for fresh supplies. While he was there the subordinate paid a courtesy call to the mother of General Zi Fa.

The mother asked, “How are the conditions of the soldiers?”

“The food situation is very tight. The men could only have some beans and grains,” the subordinate said.

“How about your general?”

“Don’t worry ma’am. Our General has Braised Meat to go with his fragrant rice.”

“Oh, “ the mother said, shaking her head.

Not long after, General Zi Fa scored a decisive victory over the Qin army and he returned to his country a hero. However, when he went to his own house, he found the gate locked and he was not allowed in.

His mother then sent a messenger to relay him her message:

“When Gou Jian, the King of Yue, was fighting the State of Wu, someone donated a cask of excellent wine. He poured the wine into the river and together with his men, he drank from the river. Would there be any taste of wine left? Of course not! But the morale of the men had increased five-fold. Later somebody donate him some bags of grain. He divided them among his soldiers. Would the grain be enough to lessen their hunger? Of course not! But their battle resolve had increased ten-fold.

“In your case, while your men starved, you feasted. Why? Did not the Book of Songs advise, “Don’t enjoy yourself too much, only then can the good man be peaceful and relaxed. Is your behaviour at the warfront something to be proud of?”

“You sent your men to die and yet you live in comfort. Even though the war was won it has nothing to do with you but your men’s valour. You are not my son. Don’t come home.”

The Burden of Leadership

I think it’s quite obvious that leaders are held to an extraordinary standard. It’s elementary really, to inspire and rally your troops, you need to set a standard. In those days, it was called a battle standard. It was a rally point and call for unity. A leader is quite literally a symbol first and strategist second.

This symbol acts as a beacon- a light in the darkness. Like moths drawn to a flame, you guide the flock through hurdles and obstacles, your light leading each step and highlighting each pitfall. I’ve written before that it’s ok not to know everything but a good leader needs to depend within his team that have the experience and expertise.

Tan Yong Soon- probably among the highest paid civil servants in the world, pictured here at Cordon Bleu Cooking Academy, France.

These are fair burdens- Ultimately the success of your department, company, army and country lies solely on your shoulders, as do the rewards of a job well done. Very rarely are individual soldiers recognised. The reason many top CEOs draw the insane salaries and command the respect they do is because as leaders, they have made the contributions and sacrifices needed to keep the team motivated. In times of crisis, some even choose to take no pay and suffer with the troops.

This inspires valour amongst your men. You aren’t alone, they’d stand with you. Sometimes, even great leaders falter and grow weary, they feel they deserve a break for mistakes and get defensive. Yes, sometimes they do but unfortunately they don’t get to make that call of when they can take a break, it’s up to your team to let you off the hook. That’s why many exemplary leaders choose to apologise and seek contrition first rather than just claim absolution.

Member of Parliament Charles Chong defended Mr. Tan by calling the citizens who decried his French cooking trip "lesser mortals"

Where I live- it’s a little bit in reverse and it’s quite depressing. I don’t begrudge senior civil servants for going cooking lessons at premier French cooking schools- what they do on their own time and own dime is their prerogative, but it starts to hurt when the very people that are supposed to lead and debate the fate and policies of the nation debase the populace by calling us “lesser mortals”- it’s an old story yes but it’s starting to become routine.

Worst of all, to hear statements like “who am I working for?” from former Prime Minister now Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, around election time is scary and perhaps evidence that whatever happens, however worse it gets, they’d still be elected.

In most western democracies, these faux pas however faux and no matter how pas are an opening for the opposition parties to declare open season on the incumbent. Not so here in Singapore.

And oddly enough it took disillusioned young Singaporeans like Lim Zi Rui to show their discontent. As a citizen and one who has borne arms for the nation, it strikes a rather poignant nail on the head. We are drummed in from day one of Basic Military Training- we fight for our lives, our wives and our homes. But when we no longer know what home is, what are we fighting for?

Like the young Lim, I was very proud being a Singaporean. We were a part of the five asian tigers we were told. We were the best- the jewel of South East Asia. Though SM Goh did admit that it was going to be a dangerous issue, his response was “You want to have a home. Who’s going to build your HDB flat?”.

He was correct. But it was a deflection, not an answer. Yes, foreign labourers build our flats, they take the jobs that many Singaporeans shun but like many other developing nations, they’ve come here seeking a better life. For us, the life here is the one we have, many of us are stuck with 99 year lease hold HDB flats that we don’t actually own. These foreign labourers are not just taking jobs that we don’t want, they’re taking the lesser administrative jobs that we do want as well.

” This is my country. I can’t just leave here whenever I want to. You can come and play and work here, but I have to stay here.”

It’s fundamental truth. Many of us can’t leave, we can’t seek greener pastures even if we wanted to and though I am thankful for the many gifts our current leadership has seen fit to bestow upon us, I fear for any children I might have. What sort of playing field would they have? Must they compete for spots in the local varsity and subsequently entry level jobs? What if I die and they no longer have parental financial support? Can they live on $1200 in some entry level careers? What then?

In Singapore, our apartments can cost close to $800,000 after a 30 year loan including interest. Most financiers and economists tell me that 30 year loans are unhealthy since you are keeping up minimum payments right till the edge of retirement.

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States once said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

His successor PM Lee Hsien Loong earned $3.04 million in 2009

Goh Chok Tong, the nation’s 2nd Prime Minister and current Senior Minister asks, “If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?”

That’s scary and that’s definitely not what Singaporeans expected when we (a parliament that is mostly filled with your party) voted for more pay for you.

In 2009, an entry level minister within the cabinet earns $1.9 million annually. The median income per Singaporean household was $52,000. This data “refers to non-retiree Singaporean households” and “excludes households consisting solely of non-working persons over 60.”
Coincidentally- The Online Citizen talks about the income disparity here. Our menstrual cycles must be syncing.
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