Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mao the management guru

The Economist year-end issue is a delight with its collection of articles on several topics other than economics. This year's issue has articles on, among other things, life in the Dharavi slum, the Koran and the Bible and the state of the Mormons. The piece that caught my eye is the one on Mao Zedong as management guru.

The Economist contends that Mao is the sort of guru that mediocre or non-performing CEOs might want to emulate- after all, not every CEO can aspire to be an Alfred Sloan. Most management books talk about how to emulate the peaks attained by the likes of Sloan. But the run- of- the-mill CEO needs something more practical to survive and prosper. Mao fits the bill.

The four key lessons that "under-performing, overcompensated" CEOs might learn from Mao are:

1. A powerful, mendacious slogan: Mao's slogan was "Serve the people". He hardly lived up to it, says the Economist, but that's not the point- he was able to justify everything he did in relation to an attention-grabbing slogan.

2. Ruthless media manipulation: Promote yourself ruthlessly- it may termed "personality cult" but it " is hard to distinguish from the modern business practice of building brand value."

3. Sacrifice of friends and colleagues: Don't let people stay close to you for too long- they may want your job. Also, do not hesitate to blame failures on others and get rid of them. Mao practised this dictum faithfully- and this is what sensible superiors at investment banks do after a bad quarterly result.

4. Activity substituting for achievement: Think big and keep coming up with plans and initiatives- they may flounder in the long run but you will be gone by them.

How true is the above description of Mao? It is true but it not the whole truth. Mao may have been a bad leader once he came to power but he was capable of sacrifice, heroism and genuine achievement on the way to the top- the Long March was not a delusion and he did succeed in toppling a discredited regime. His early achievements were also not inconsiderable- land reforms, for instance.

It is the record of substantial achievement with an element of personal sacrifice, however collosal the failures, that must explain why Mao has a standing in China today that Stalin lacks in Russia. Stalin too faithfully acted on the four lessons but he is a reviled figure in Russia today. He was not bereft of achievement- his successful defence of the Soviet Union against Hitler, for instance. But he lacked a comparable record of sacrifice- he is seen merely as a grabber and wielder of power.

That said, the Economist's lessons certainly hold true for non-performing CEOs in the corporate world. An individual may have earned the CEO's job or may have hacked his way to the top. But, once there, he can get away with non-performance and worse if he faithfully sticks to the four lessons. Sloganeering, projection in the media and creating an illusion of results are undoubtedly useful in making one's stay at the top productive- for oneself.


Anonymous said...

Dear Prof RamMohan,

My question is wrt 3rd Point: Sacrifice of Friends and Colleagues: What's your take on Stan O Neal (Merrill Lynch): He is the one who took accountability for Subprime Loss on himself from Day 1 (post realization) & Chuck Prince (Citi): Who was shoving away the responsibility to begin with but
1) Both of them met the same end (though Stan O Neal is still with ML not as a CEO)--> US Media blamed Stan O Neal's poor performance on affirmative action (they completely blided themselves for Stan's performance from 2001 to 2006 (all the rise in Stock Prices, EPS etc)
2) Chuck Prince: Some sections wanted him to stay back.

Thanks & Regards,

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