January 24, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
All interested in contemporary business leadership need to study of China, not just stay abreast of current events on the front page of the newspaper. The business landscape is rapidly changing, China is at the center of the changes, and we had best recognize that and be prepared.
Yesterday was our first global leadership class, and the course is off to a good start. China is our living case study this semester (and we will travel there together in spring) for building cultural intelligence; expanding international business acumen; and learning about shifting global powers, economies, and marketplaces. Some observations over my next few posts from our discussions.
China’s complexity: China is a complex country, with a complex history and culture that infuse its current political, economic, and policy choices in ways a casual observer might miss.
Recognizing what it means, for example, to have been one of the most advanced and innovative nations on the planet – gunpowder, the compass, moveable type, paper making, silk production, nutrition studies, veterinary studies, metallurgy technologies, rice cultivation, pasta, paper money, pharmacology, and more trace their origins to ancient China – gives us clues to the urgency in China’s national aching to be a strong and dominant world player again. It also enables us to appreciate why and to reconcile the seeming dichotomies in China’s mix of communism and capitalism – its “Socialism with Chinese character.”
Read about the history of the Opium Wars, the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan, and China’s loss of territories and land over the ages by invasion or as a result of internationally-supported fiat using a cultural lens of face-saving. You learn something important about the power of trust in foreign relations – and why transparency in China’s contemporary global diplomacy might not come easy.
Look at the behavioral and philosophical foundations of Legalism in China and of how that can help account for the authoritarian and brutal aspects of the Cultural Revolution or for incidents labeled in the West as human rights violations.
Combine Confucianism, Daoism, Communism, and Capitalism for a feel of the complexity and variety of personal ideologies and ethical frameworks in China today. The list could go on.
I’m not a history buff, so I always appreciate the reminder of how much nations are like people.
Research — and any good psychiatrist — will tell you that we all come by our behaviors and worldviews honestly as a result of a combination of early life experiences and what nature has given us. Thinking deeply about China’s history and its given natural givens – including an isolating physical terrain with huge mountains on three sides and an ocean on the fourth – puts the country’s actions today in a new perspective.
We can’t know China today without understanding its past. We can’t know business leadership without knowing both.
The magnitude of the task: For those new to the task of studying China — of learning to see China, past and present, through Eastern and Western eyes — it is a big task.
It will take time, effort, and patience to fully wrap minds around the complexity of a nation that can traces its history hundreds of thousands of years. The speed of the transitions occurring in China today only magnify the challenge of sorting all this out for business and for policy.
Where to start: Read and talk.
For readings, begin with Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. Hessler is a journalist and a beautiful writer. He seamlessly weaves contemporary stories of a variety of compelling characters in China today with gripping vignettes and snippets of history. How everything connects is mastery, and every word or fact is essential to Hessler’s narrative. High praise for the book’s artistry, and it is still a hard read for many. But the reasons why are exactly why you need to read it. The mix of history, unknown places, names we can’t easily remember or that require us to sound out every syllable, characters that challenge stereotypes, mini-language lessons, and the backs-and-forths between stories of now and then create a visceral feel for readers that mirrors the experience of China today.
And talk to everyone. African cab drivers in Washington, D.C. have given me insights into China’s investments and strategies better than any journalist or researcher. Ex-patriots who have successfully lived and worked in China can identify cultural elements like few else. Look around. You’ll be surprised how many people you know have links, experiences, and connections to China.
We’ll bring in diverse speakers over the semester – economists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, Midwestern governs, scholars, citizens interested in cultural relations, consultants, artists, Chinese students studying at our university – to share their take on the complexity. We’ll get very different perspectives from the different vantage points and as a result of the unique experiences of different professionals. And we’ll learn from sorting through the differences and inevitable contradictions. Simply speaking, China today – and yesterday – is just not simple.