The western business attitude to China

The western business attitude to China

In my last column, called Leading through DISRUPTION, I tried to show the value of three attributes: Skills to Navigate, Creativity to use Acute Perception and Confidence to Command. In a rough sea the Master gives orders. Tacit acceptance by, and unquestioning obedience of, the crew made that form of command possible, indeed essential. Storm still rages but experience produces a sense of calmer water. Time to reinstate more normal management.

My new series, Leading through DISCUSSION, will try to show how febrile such top-down management is and how short a time it can be maintained. Obedience is a quality of mixed blessing. Lemmings obey, and die. Sheep have much the same tendencies. Why is that? What do you think are the causes of idiotic obedience? Lack of brainpower? Fear of punishment? Terror of possible isolation if you are the only survivor? Or is it laziness, a thinking that “I did what you told me, therefore I am exonerated from any bad result”?

The balanced team
To manage a team where there is a clear leader and the members are aware of their responsibility to disagree when they reasonably should is a Terrific Experience. It requires, first, that you know the sheep from the goats. The former are of limited intelligence and will follow instructions for any or all of the reasons suggested. How are they best kept quiet – but with a nod of face-saving involvement from time to time? What are the jobs they can be relied upon to do? What happens as they age? Can they still be of value to an organisation, and, if so, why?

What to do with the more intelligent
The goats, on the other hand, are more intelligent, probably younger and raring to run the place. If allowed to, they will run it into the ground. But their drive and enthusiasm is a pot of gold and must be trained and developed if the organisation is to thrive. Good Goats need room to manoeuvre. How shall they be steered but not shackled? How are their overcharged brains to be allowed flight, but harnessed when something useful emerges from them? What incentivises a Good Goat more than anything else? Is it power to decide, achievement of a breakthrough, satisfaction of success? Or is it a verbal pat on the back in front of colleagues? My experience suggests that this last plays a most significant part in Good Goats rewards.

The best of Good Goats become Bosses. Or they should. How often is a mediocre boss appointed to satisfy the Top Person’s need not to be threatened and not to release any of the power to lead? A good Boss is a prerequisite to any organisation’s longevity.

The West needs great bosses now
More than ever, the west needs good bosses and leaders now. The political storm created by the pandemic, by climate disaster at the door and by political and technological competition between the United States and China is riding rough and will continue to do so. As it continues, business must learn to handle it notwithstanding the political and copyright rules disagreements. What should be the attitude of western business when dealing with China suppliers, markets and inventions? Should business mirror the competitive, war-like exchanges? It would seem to be a pointless exercise to do so.

How then should business deal with the scenario of the new battles surrounding it? Should it first look at itself and discover the awesome truth that business collectively is more powerful than politicians, even collective politicians. How important is money in today’s world? Think through the role of money in the pandemic. Has it helped or hindered, short-term and long-term? I think we would agree that it has prevented some really dreadful poverty short-term and will continue to do so. When survival requires you to mortgage the future you do so, don’t you?

The importance of money now
Money is playing a bigger part in dealing with the pandemic than we had thought possible. But the virus pales into insignificance when compared with the climate disaster accelerating towards ‘out-of-control’ at a most alarming pace. If money can help the pandemic, what is its role in climate adaptation and limitation? Would resources equivalent to ten times those available now make a noticeable difference to the climate disaster? Nobody can tell but what is certain is that that amount of resource is a minimum to deal with the problem. It may be much more.

So what do we conclude from that? That money is the new controller of our destiny? It has been for some time but its importance has suddenly ballooned. Such recognition asks who is making this money? The politicians may be determining the release of it but they have less and less control of even that. Big business is very big indeed. Will it determine the course of funds to the major threats and opportunities we now face? Almost certainly, I think.

The importance of cooperation
Business makes most money when it cooperates. That is why it is so often prevented from doing so and ripping off the consumer. Like all of us big business needs some control if it is to remain an asset. Business must remain competitive even as it cooperates. But it is the duty of big business to make the money needed, isn’t it? If not, who will do so? No economy can last without business. So the demands for big investments in survival needs are laid at the door of business.

This applies whether you are in Germany or Shanghai. More money will be made by the two cooperating than by them fighting. Battle lines are drawn by politicians, who may change their minds at any minute and sometimes without apparent reason. Businesses behave more rationally in the interests of making money. Do we conclude from this that businesses worldwide must reestablish the inevitable globalization that is part of modern life?

If so, will business become the new political shaper of East West cooperation?

It’s a question that needs an urgent answer.

This article was first published in Business Times on 24 September 2020