Care for your people? Throw them to the wolves!

When we read books or attend courses or learn a thing or two from the sagely erudite, have you ever been confused by apparent contradictions from the same source? What about apparent contradictions from similar but different sources?

Take these four passages, three from “The Illustrated Art of War” and one from “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world”. Do read the first two passages and then continue this discussion. After that, we compare the third and fourth passages and discuss them as well.

First passage “The Illustrated Art of War” Ch X v 19-21 (including comments)

19 And therefore the general who in advancing does not seek personal fame, and in withdrawing is not concerned with avoiding punishment, but whose only purpose is to protect the people and promote the best interests of his sovereign, is the precious jewel of the state.

Li Ch’üan:…Such a general has no personal interest.

Tu Mu:…Few such are to be had.

20 Because such a general regards his men as infants they will march with him into the deepest valleys. He treats them as his own beloved sons and they will die with him.

Li Ch’üan: If he cherishes his men in this way he will gain their utmost strength. Thus, the Viscount of Ch’u needed but to speak a word and the soldiers felt as if clad in warm silken garments.

Tu Mu: During the Warring States when Wu Ch’i was a general he took the same food and wore the same clothes as the lowliest of his troops. On his bed there was no mat; on the march he did not mount his horse; he himself carried his reserve rations. He shared exhaustion and bitter toil with his troops.

Chang Yü:…Therefore the Military Code says: ‘The general must be the first in the toils and fatigues of the army. In the heat of summer he does not spread his parasol nor in the cold of winter don thick clothing. In dangerous places he must dismount and walk. He waits until the army’s wells have been dug and only then drinks; until the army’s food is cooked before he eats; until the army’s fortifications have been completed, to shelter himself.’

21 If a general indulges his troops but is unable to employ them; if he loves them but cannot enforce his commands; if the troops are disorderly and he is unable to control them, they may be compared to spoiled children, and are useless.

Chang Yü:…If one uses kindness exclusively the troops become like arrogant children and cannot be employed. This is the reason Ts’ao Ts’ao cut off his own hair and so punished himself. …Good commanders are both loved and feared. That is all there is to it.

Second passage “The Illustrated Art of War” Ch XI v 33-34 and 47-50

33 Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape and even when faced with death they will not flee. For if prepared to die, what can they not achieve? Then officers and men together put forth their utmost efforts. In a desperate situation they fear nothing; when there is no way out they stand firm. Deep in a hostile land they are bound together, and there, where there is no alternative, they will engage the enemy in hand to hand combat.

34 Thus, such troops need no encouragement to be vigilant. Without extorting their support the general obtains it; without inviting their affection he gains it; without demanding their trust he wins it.

47 To assemble the army and throw it into a desperate position is the business of the general.

48 He leads the army deep into hostile territory and there releases the trigger.

49 He burns his boats and smashes his cooking pots; he urges the army on as if driving a flock of sheep, now in one direction, now in another, and none knows where he is going.

50 He fixes a date for rendezvous and after the troops have met, cuts off their return route just as if he were removing a ladder from beneath them.

Throw your children to the wolves?

Are these passages at odds with each other? Of course not! The first seems to say “Treat your people well, as if you are treating your own children.” The second, “Keep throwing them stretch goals. Demand results. And I mean s–t–r–e–t–c–h…”

It seems obvious that we need to treat our people as our own children because good character is caught much more than taught. Thus the emphasis on leading by example in order to inspire. This is a role that we play continuously whether we like it or not. It demands that we ourselves are subject to a Higher Law and a Higher Purpose so that we may demand the same from those we lead. It does NOT mean that we give in to every whim and fancy our people bring to us. Nor does it mean adjusting our business goals and objectives downwards so that our people “…don’t have to work so hard…” Treating our people as our own children means literally just that. It’s a tough, 24/7 commitment to give our people the best conditions so that they grow as people and hence propel our businesses forward and upward. It means bending over backwards to cater for “special”, “unique” and “unusual” needs and even aspirations. It does NOT mean fraternizing and tolerating insubordination. Logical? Not if you hear what I hear so often from conversations with people of all industries and levels, not to mention direct observation. What are YOU doing to ensure that you treat your people like your own children?

Giving your people “stretch goals” regularly might also seem like throwing them constantly into the deep end when they haven’t learned how to swim yet. Being the inspirational, caring leader that you are, you don’t want to do that, nor should you. However, being a leader also means recognizing the vicissitudes forever present in people. You will not always have the luxury of having well-oiled teams comprised of members who love and respect each other and who seem like a powerful living organism, or an octopus, when they go about their work. Whether you’re there or not, to boot. Reality is, your people will tend to hate each other and cook up endless irritating work-relationship-related issues you abhor spending countless hours resolving, or your business will wind up. Throwing them into “sink-or-swim” projects that you deliberately plan for helps in the proverbial “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing-Reforming” team formation process, especially if you haven’t yet charmed them into being willing to lay their lives down for you. Do you have teams that need to be given the “burn the boats and smash the cooking pots” type of treatment?

It’s Complicated?

The third and fourth passages are:

Third passage “The Illustrated Art of War” Ch XI v 43, 55

43 He should be capable of keeping his officers and men in ignorance of his plans.

Ts’ao Ts’ao:…His troops may join him in rejoicing at the accomplishment, but they cannot join him in laying the plans.

55 Set the troops to their tasks without imparting your designs; use them to gain advantage without revealing the dangers involved. Throw them into a perilous situation and they survive; put them in death ground and they will live. For when the army is placed in such a situation it can snatch victory from defeat.

Fourth passage “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world” Ch IV p 83

Although on the battlefield the soldiers were expected to obey without question, even the lowest ranking were treated as junior partners who were expected to understand the endeavour and to have some voice in it. The senior members met together in large public meetings to discuss the issues, then individually went to their own units to continue the discussion with the lower-ranking warriors. To have the full commitment of every warrior, it was important that each of them, from the highest to the lowest, participate and know where he stood in the larger plan of events.

The greater the need and emphasis on Compliance and Confidentiality, the greater the degree of the Absence of Trust. How many of us realize how ironical that is? We build massive, monolithic structures centered around Compliance and Confidentiality, and do extremely little to Build Trust in our own people. How many of us have the confidence that, even when presenting bold plans that are highly fraught with failure, our people may disagree and say so, but they will also commit wholeheartedly to the project if we decide to accept the high risk and continue anyway? Blessed are we indeed if so!

Throw your people to the wolves? Maybe sometimes if you need to. Might be better to teach them how to swim with the sharks.

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