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Chairman Mao, Management Role Model?

Posted by: Jena McGregor on December 19, 2007

I have to say I’m not sure I quite get The Economist’s cover this week. Titled “Staying at the top: Mao and the art of management,” the Economist’s piece positions Chairman Mao as the role model for bad managers, outlining his tactics (ruthless media manipulation, sacrifice of friends and colleagues) for cementing his power. “Where is the role model for the manager who really needs a role model most—the one who by any objective measure of performance cannot, and should not, manage at all? An obvious candidate is Mao.”

Written with a certain British subtlety, it seems they’re attempting a parody of the four-steps-to-success management-success dreck that pile up on my desk every day (I received 5 just yesterday). I’m befuddled how an essay about the bad management of a decades-old communist government leader makes it on the cover.

While they may have meant as a management guru satire (first Sun Tzu, now Mao!), unfortunately, we’ve all seen cases where some of these tactics actually work. I know a good number of leaders who avoid certain reporters and cater to others. And how many VPs do you know who’ve managed to get plenty far by looking busy, or as the Economist puts it, “substituting activity for achievement?”

Reader Comments


December 20, 2007 8:36 AM


I read the Mao article yesterday and I agree with you on the notion that we can't learn anything from Mao, especially when compared to the discipline of Alfred Sloan, who even Peter Drucker admired. However, I completely DISagree with you on Sun Tzu, whose principles are still relevant 2500 years later and actively being applied by countless executives. As Mao's legacy is slowly diminishing as more sordid facts come out, Sun Tzu's strategic concepts continue to prove useful and are far from a fad as you alluded in your post. Minor point? If you actually read Sun Tzu's The Art of War you wouldn't think so.


Jena McGregor

December 20, 2007 9:09 AM

Hi Thomas--

I have read Sun Tzu. Twice. And I agree with you there's plenty there that's applicable to business. But take one look at the extent to which the management book and tchotchke industry has co-opted Sun Tzu (search Google or Amazon) for evidence, and I think you may agree with me it's been taken a little too far. My favorite title: "The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu's Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work." Why do we need our own Sun Tzu?


December 21, 2007 8:38 AM


I understand where you're coming from and thank you for the clarification. Anyone who isn't fascinated by strategy won't go so far as to pick up every Sun Tzu book available. As you know there are countless books on, for example, Jesus and Lincoln. Yet I don't hear people comment on how many angles there are on /them/. Yet Sun Tzu has been around longer than either of them and he is just as relevant (his principles are still taught at military academies, in the Marine Corps, and graduate business schools), especially for strategy in intense, competitive environments, such as business today. That's why you see so many business books on Sun Tzu.

In addition, since China is becoming more of a central player in the world, it is beneficial to understand the Chinese mindset on competition. Sun Tzu has influenced China longer than Mao. In fact, Mao quoted Sun Tzu in many of his books. Unlike in the US, in China Sun Tzu is a household name; when I was in Shanghai, you say his name and everyone I met knows who you're talking about.



December 21, 2007 12:40 PM

I'd recommend as a companion piece the article "Mao’s Pervasive Influence on Chinese CEOs" by Shaomin Li and Kuang Yeh in this month's Harvard Business Review.

In China there are a host of companies (including biggies like Wahaha) whose managers explicitly use Mao as a guideline in how they conduct business: "Our research on the practices and attitudes of Chinese CEOs offers abundant evidence that Mao’s principles continue to influence top executives: All but one of 15 CEOs we interviewed told us they often turned to Mao’s teachings for management ideas," the authors write. One particularly Maoist management technique used by Chinese CEOs (to reinforce their position at the top) involves "keeping even senior managers in a constant state of uncertainty, sometimes mobilizing lower-level employees to criticize and pressure mid- and upper-level executives." (Which is not to say that this kind of activity is exclusive to China - just that Mao set such a clear example for fellow sociopaths.)

Mike Reardon

December 24, 2007 12:58 AM

Mao is all about using the temper of your time against the forces you oppose. It is about knowing your customer and the market you sell in more that a completely incompetent competitor.

In that vain Mao is Steve Jobs and both the Nationalist Government and its 1950 US supporters were the whole of Microsoft. Mao and the CCP had a better understanding of the Chinese population and the Nationalist Government never met the true battle for control and coercion of the hearts and minds of the population.

That is what gets you a cover of Time as the 'Person of the Year' like Putin and Mao have both done.

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