Timeless Leadership

The HR in me came out and I began to question how the emperors were able to lead, not only because of the insulated city but of the vastness of this great country?
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The last weekend of December I found myself in Beijing. I wanted the weekend in China's capital to visit some sites including the Great Wall (check it off my bucket list) before heading to my Shanghai office Monday morning. Accompanying me, my sixteen year old daughter; her first visit to China, my twentieth I think (honestly I lost count) but my first visit to Beijing.

As road warriors can attest, there is usually little time to take in local sights and culture on business trips. Your day is spent in the office followed by the obligatory staff dinner, and usually capping the evening checking emails way into the wee hours of the morning (based on the time zone) only to hit repeat; so I was looking forward to this weekend.

Our first stop was the Forbidden City. We passed through Tiananmen Gate, which faced the enormous square with the same name, passing the large oil painting of Chairman Mao; our guide Jackie began his commentary. He noted there were no trees in the courtyards. "Why" I asked. "Less places for assassins to hide." He went on "The emperor had twenty seven beds and slept in a different one each night to confuse any potential killers." The life of the emperor did not seem all that glamorous and rather a fearful one. I recalled the words of my father who counseled me as I was thinking of my future career, "No matter what you do, make sure you are able to sleep at night."

On this clear blue day, a rarity for this ancient city famous for its air pollution woes, my eyes scanned the vastness of the grounds. The HR in me came out and I began to question how the emperors were able to lead, not only because of the insulated city but of the vastness of this great country? How did they trust those around them? Were there any lessons that could be applied and helpful for today's leaders?

There was one emperor who became the standard by which all other emperors were measured; Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty who ruled from 626 to 649. In his book Li Shi Min, Founding the Tang Dynasty: The Strategies that Made China the Greatest Empire in Asia Hing Ming Hung describes how Taizong built a prosperous China. I focused on the leadership traits that enabled him to do so, many of which can apply today:

§ Have a clear vision. People need to know what the end goal is. They need to be inspired. Taizong wanted peace and prosperity for China and all his actions were focused on this vision.

§ Get rid of toxic people. Organizations cannot grow and blossom if it allows toxicity. Now you don't have to be as radical as Emperor Taizong who was forced to kill his two brothers who conspired against him and the 'organization,' but leaders need to be swift to rid their companies of those that undermine.

§ Surround yourself with people who will tell you like it is. Have a core team who you rely on to be honest and tell you the hard truth. Get rid of 'yes' men (and women). Taizong encouraged his team of generals and officials to point out mistakes and criticism, but also the rationale. It was also a good way for him to test his team's ethics, understanding and application of the laws.

§ Trust and empower your people. People will do the right thing when you provide them freedom and trust. There is an anecdote that one December the emperor heard the cases of several hundred criminals. He was so moved that he granted over three hundred ninety death penalty convicts the ability to go home to be with their families with the caveat that they return the following autumn to face their death sentence. Amazingly, the following year all the convicts returned only for Taizong to set them all free.

§ Put people first. There's been much written (especially on the HuffPost) about the importance of placing people first. Back in the 7th century, Taizong exemplified this. He remained grounded and humble understanding that to be ostentatious and greedy would undermine his governance and bring unrest. Every action was executed with care to place people first.

§ Be fair and consistent. Leaders need to be mindful that bending the rules or showing favoritism only creates dissension and resentment within the ranks. At one ceremony, the emperor doled out rewards to his officials and generals. His uncle, an official in the government, voiced his displeasure with the size of his award. The emperor retorted that the contributions of the others had been much more significant and for that reason he could not offer him same level of benefits and awards. Taizong immediately won the loyalty of his team.

Over 1,300 years have passed since Taizong ruled, but his leadership lessons are timeless. The attributes and characteristics he displayed can be easily applied to any modern day leader, hopefully with the same results.

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