Mao and the art of management

This is a fun article to read.  A guide on how to rule like a dictator in the corporate world.

Dec 19th 2007
From The Economist print edition

A role model, of sorts

Books on management tend to define success in the broadest possible terms—great product, happy employees, continuous improvement, gobs of profits, crushed competitors. Even when words such as “excellence” and “success” are omitted from the title, they are often implicit. A case in point is the book which many would say defined the genre, Alfred Sloan’s “My Years with General Motors”, published in 1963 when GM was still an iconic company and Sloan correctly acknowledged as the architect of the well-run, decentralised, global corporation.

But focusing on how the best produce the best has its limits. Most managers, after all, do not stitch an industrial triumph from a vast bankrupt junkyard, as Sloan did. They do not delight their customer, crush competitors and create vast wealth. They struggle. They stumble.

Where is the book for them? Who can help the under-performing, over-compensated chief executive fighting to survive intrusive journalists, independent shareholders and ambitious vice-presidents who could do a better job? Where is the role model for the manager who really needs a role model most—the one who by any objective measure of performance cannot, and should not, manage at all?

An obvious candidate is Mao. Yes, he was head of a country, not a company. But he self-consciously carried a business-like title, “chairman”, while running China from 1949 until dying in office in 1976, having jailed, killed, or psychologically crushed a succession of likely replacements and therefore created the classic business problem: a succession void. He thought of himself as, in his own words, an “indefatigable teacher” and the famous “Little Red Book” drawn from his speeches is packed with managerial advice on training, motivation and evaluation of lower-level employees (cadres); innovation (“let a hundred flowers bloom”); competition (“fear no sacrifice”); and, of course, raising the game of the complacent manager (relentless self-criticism).

Mao still has at least a symbolic hold over the Chinese economy, even though it began to blossom only after death removed his suffocating hand. His portrait is emblazoned on China’s currency, on bags, shirts, pins, watches and whatever else can be sold by the innumerable entrepreneurial capitalists that he ground beneath his heel when in power. No other recent leader of a viable country (outside North Korea, in other words) is so honoured—not even ones that did a good job.

It was not a nurturing management style that won Mao this adulation. According to Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s “Mao, the Unknown Story”, admittedly an unsympathetic portrait, he was responsible for “70m deaths, more than any other 20th-century leader”. But why stop at the 20th century? In Chinese history, only Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who started building the Great Wall (in which each brick is said to have cost a life), was competition for Mao; and since the population was much smaller then, Mao is likely to have outdone him in absolute numbers.

Botched economic policies caused most of the carnage. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, turned the policies, and eventually the economy, around. Yet he does not even merit an image on a coin.

The disparity between Mao’s performance and his reputation is instructive, for behind it are four key ingredients which all bad managers could profitably employ.

A powerful, mendacious slogan

Born a modestly well-off villager, Mao lived like an emperor, carried on litters by peasants, surrounded by concubines and placated by everyone. Yet his most famous slogan was “Serve the People”. This paradox illustrates one aspect of his brilliance: his ability to justify his actions, no matter how entirely self-serving, as being done for others.

Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance”—the ability to make a compelling, heartfelt case for one thing while doing another. Being able to pull off this sort of trick is an essential skill in many professions. It allows sub-standard chief executives to rationalise huge pay packages while their underlings get peanuts (or rice).

But Mao did not just get a stamp from a compliant board and eye-rolling from employees. He convinced his countrymen of his value. That was partly because, even if his message bore no relation to his actions, it expressed precisely and succinctly what he should have been doing. Consider the truth and clarity of “serve the people” compared with the average company’s mission statement, packed with a muddle of words and thoughts tied to stakeholders and CSR, that employees can barely read, let alone memorise.

Deng Xiaoping’s slogan, which he used in his campaign to revive the economy, had similar virtues. “Truth from facts” is a sound-bite that Sloan would have loved and every manager should cherish, but you won’t find it chiselled on a Chinese wall. It doesn’t have the hypocritical idealism of Mao’s version—nor was it pushed so hard.

Ruthless media manipulation

Mao knew not just how to make a point but also how to get it out. Through posters, the “Little Red Book” and re-education circles, his message was constantly reinforced. “Where the broom does not reach”, he said, “the dust will not vanish of itself.” This process of self-aggrandisement is often dismissed as a “personality cult”, but is hard to distinguish from the modern business practice of building brand value.

Yet within China economic growth was pathetic and living conditions were wretched. So why did a vast list of Western political, military and academic leaders accept the value of Mao’s brand at his own estimation? Even Stalin, no guileless observer, believed in and, to his later regret, protected Mao. The brand-building lesson is that a clear, utopian message, hammered home relentlessly, can obscure inconvenient facts. Great salesmen are born knowing this. Executives whose strategies are not delivering need to learn it.

Chief executives are not in a position to crush the media as Mao did. Nevertheless, his handling of them offers some lessons. He talked only to sycophantic journalists and his appeal in the West came mainly from hagiographies written by reporters whose careers were built on the access they had to him.

The law constrains the modern chief executive’s ability to imitate Mao’s PR strategy. Publicly listed companies have to publish information, rather than hand it out selectively. But many, within bounds, emulate Mao’s media management; others, determined to control information about them, are delisting. Burrow beneath laudatory headlines on business and political leaders, and it becomes clear that the strategy works.

Sacrifice of friends and colleagues

“Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? This is a question of first importance,” Mao wrote. Sloan agreed. He worried that favouritism would come at the expense of the single most valuable component of management: the objective evaluation of performance.

Mao had a different goal: he did not want people too close to him, and therefore to power; so being Mao’s friend often proved more dangerous than being his enemy. One purge followed another. Promotions and demotions were zealously monitored. Bundles of incentives were given and withdrawn. Some demotions turned out well. Deng Xiaoping’s exile in a tractor factory may have helped him understand business, and thus rebuild the economy, but that was an unintended benefit.

This approach makes sense. Close colleagues may want your job, and relationships with them may distract you. Mao’s abandonment of friends and even wives and children seemed to be based on a calculation of which investments were worth maintaining and which should be regarded as sunk costs. Past favours were not returned. According to Ms Chang and Mr Halliday, a doctor who saved his life was left to die on a prison floor after being falsely accused of disloyalty. Mao let it happen: he had other doctors by then.

Enemies, conversely, can be useful. Mao often blamed battlefield losses on rivals who were made to suffer for these defeats. The names of modern victims of this tactic will be visible on the list of people sacked at an investment bank after a rough quarter; the practitioners are their superiors, or those who have taken their jobs.

Activity substituting for achievement

Mao was quite willing to avoid tedious or uncomfortable meetings, particularly when he was likely to be criticised. But maybe that helped him avoid getting bogged down. From the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s to the Great Leap Forward, a failed agricultural and industrial experiment in the early 1960s, to the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Mao was never short of a plan.

Under Mao, China didn’t drift, it careened. The propellant came from the top. Policies were poor, execution dreadful and leadership misdirected, but each initiative seemed to create a centripetal force, as everyone looked toward Beijing to see how to march forward (or avoid being trampled). The business equivalent of this is restructuring, the broader the better. Perhaps for the struggling executive, this is the single most important lesson: if you can’t do anything right, do a lot. The more you have going on, the longer it will take for its disastrous consequences to become clear. And think very big: for all his flaws, Mao was inspiring.

In the long run, of course, the facts will find you out. But who cares? We all know what we are in the long run.

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