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Working with the enemy

Published on Friday, 20 Apr 2012
Illustration: Bay Leung
Hum Sin Hoon
Book: Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration: Understanding the Legendary Chinese Admiral from a Management Perspective
Author: Hum Sin Hoon
Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Singapore

The history and business of publishing throws up some anomalies. For the past 15 years, more copies of the IKEA catalogue have been printed annually than copies of the Holy Bible. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has still to outsell Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. And more business leaders than military generals have bought Sun Zi’s Art of War.

The last-cited title first emerged 27 centuries ago, but it’s become a revered business text in recent decades, as well as the all-time best-selling guide to winning on the battlefield.

“Know your enemies, know yourself,” extolled Sun Zi in his treatise. In contrast, the legendary Admiral Zheng He might have countered by saying: “Know your collaborators, know yourself.”

Professor Hum Sin Hoon, vice-dean of undergraduate studies programme at the National University of Singapore Business School, has penned this work from the mindset of the admiral,  thanks to apparently superhuman research. In a nutshell, if the admiral had written a leadership treatise, large parts would read like this.

What the book delivers is Zheng He’s mellower and presumably more productive approach to leadership, which contrasts starkly with that of Sun Zi’s strikingly antagonistic Art of War.

With his attachment to the collaborative paradigm, the admiral sometimes seems a much more contemporary boardroom player than 15th-century warrior – and this is one of the book’s central themes:  Zheng He is a win-win guy, not a zero-sum dueller.

But just who was this fellow? A towering figure in Chinese history, no less. A mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, who commanded voyages from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa from 1405 to 1433.

Zheng He was appointed by the emperor as the admiral in control of a huge fleet, and his first voyage, which departed from Suzhou, consisted of  317 ships and over 27,000 crewmen. Hoon dovetails the maritime yarns and lessons on the leadership approach of China’s most famous admiral into applicable theory, with lucid rationales, and by means of a mind that is good at joining up the dots.

Divided into two parts – “Zheng He and his message” and “Zheng He and his management” – comprising four chapters each, the text manages to avoid being too dry and scholarly.

The opening chapter asks: “Why pay attention to this 15th-Century Chinese Eunuch?”  It then answers from various engaging angles. Much of the rest of Part 1 compares and contrasts Zheng He’s art of collaboration with Sun Zi’s Art of War.

Hoon balances this nicely before coming down in favour of the subject of his book, but  he is evidently an authority on both influential military theorists, and the wealth of historical detail in Part I offers  tremendous value.

The four chapters of Part II quite brilliantly illuminate Zheng He’s leadership magic and how it can be applied today in four specific areas, each of which gets a chapter to itself: leadership, human resource management, logistics and supply chain management, and “implications”. The latter dwells on the supporting role of religious faith in leadership, a thought-provoking twist in a thoroughly original work.

The Muslim Zheng He held a highly inclusive view of faiths, respecting them all. (His men even helped to build temples in distant Southeast Asian locales.) Zheng He’s brand of multiculturalism meant he was a man centuries ahead of his time, especially when compared with the Western explorers of his day, who saw the forced imposition of their own faiths on other societies as a key goal – unless slavery was a greater priority.

Can this book be flawed? Well, slightly. It takes rather a long time to get to the meat and potatoes of Parts I and II. First, one has to leaf through no fewer than nine pages of testimonials, from such luminaries as Real Estate Developer’s Association of Singapore CEO Dr Steven Choo, and Suntec Investment chief executive Ricky Sim. This is followed by a page devoted to describing the publisher – the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – as well as the International Zheng He Society.

Many books have been written on Admiral Zheng He. But this one approaches the iconic mariner from a fresh angle, with the verve of a best-selling author of popular history.  Both sides of this study – the history and the business theory – are equally  captivating.  Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration is Hoon’s first book, and he has set the bar high for his second.

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