Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Way of the General - Part XIII

Order and Disorder

When a nation is perilous and disordered, and the people are not secure in their homes, this is because the ruler has made the mistake of neglecting to find wise people

When the wise are disaffected, a nation is in peril; when the wise are employed, a nation is secure. When offices are chosen for persons, there is disorder; when persons are chosen for offices, there is order.

It was the year AD189. With the death of Emperor Ling, the stage was set for a face off between He Jin, Commander-in-Chief of Han Imperial army and Eunuch Faction, represented by the powerful Ten Regular Attendants.

Jian Shou from the Eunuch faction plotted to assassinate He Jin but the conspiracy was discovered in advance, and He Jin had Jian Shuo arrested and executed. He also seized the troops previously under Jian Shuo's command. With the support of the Yuan clan, particularly Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, the succession dispute was resolved in favor of Liu Bian, the son of Empress He, who ascended the throne in the fifth month of that year. He Jin and his sister, now the Empress Dowager, jointly took on the role of regent.

During the summer months, He Jin maneuvered, sometimes hesitantly, with Yuan Shao against the eunuch faction. The eunuchs, now without a military power base of their own, relied on the support of Empress Dowager He and He Miao. Upon the urging of Yuan Shao, He Jin summoned the frontier general Dong Zhuo to the outskirts of Luoyang, in an attempt to force the Empress Dowager to back down.

Finally, in the ninth month of that year He Jin entered the palace to request the Empress Dowager to agree to the execution of the eunuchs. The conversation was overheard and relayed to Zhang Rang, the eunuch placed in charge after the death of Jian Shuo. The desperate eunuchs then had He Jin surrounded and beheaded in the palace garden.

The situation soon spun out of control. Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, both with significant control of military forces within the capital, stormed the palace and massacred the eunuchs.

The resulting power vacuum allowed Dong Zhuo to seize control of the imperial court. As soon as he held supremacy over the capital, Dong Zhuo deposed the emperor in favor of the Prince of Chenliu, who came to be known as Emperor Xian. The deposition as well as Dong Zhuo's subsequent atrocities incurred the wrath of many. In AD190, warlords from the eastern provinces formed the
Guandong Coalition to oust Dong Zhuo.

Emperor Ling’s incompetence in his selection of greedy and selfish officials such as The Ten Regular Attendants and He Jin destabilized the foundations of Han Empire. His actions were akin to 偷梁換柱 Replace the beams with rotten timbers. Failure in maintaining order, especially after the Yellow Turban Rebellion, signified the sun had finally set on the Han Dynasty.


Damien Tan

"When a nation is perilous and disordered, and the people are not secure in their homes, this is because the ruler has made the mistake of neglecting to find wise people"

I've been thinking about this for a while. A crazy emperor will find wisdom in an equally crazy person. He will surround himself with like-minded "wise" men during his reign. The first emperor no doubt thought that the act of burning scholar works as a wise act. Wise in as far as it serves his wish to have no intellectual challengers.

The bookstore is a place where lots of gurus offer their wisdom thru their writings. I've seen best-sellers on the revolutionary management practices of General Motors, Chrysler, Nissan, and wise methodologies like Six Sigma that Citibank adopted. Now every one of these companies are having their asses kicked on Wall Street. The troubling thing about wisdom is how it seems so temporary, its true colors unraveled in hindsight. Things that seemed so right now seems so wrong.

So, by what criteria would you determine if something is truly wise and not a time bomb or a sick delusion of reality? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it.


hello, i found your blog from blogupp. just wanna say, "a nice blog". thanks. regard. Seno.


Dear Damien,

Thanks for your insight. Your question is a difficult, though interesting one. I'm definitely KIV this as a potential blog topic :)

However, since you've used examples of corporate giants and their star CEOs, I shall focus my comments on management theories. My criteria are:

1. True Purpose
Many corporations today are driven by profits. Being listed MNCs, most KPIs are focused on results. Most non financial KPIs are merely profits expressed in non-financial terms. By reducing the purpose of corporations to numbers, there is a disembodiment from what the corporation provides vs. what management focuses on.

For instance, one would assume pharmaceutical corporations are established for the purposes of providing medicines to people at an affordable cost whilst reaping enough profits to continue its' research. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of profits, this purpose is lost.

Just like a real person, any management theory must first ask the corporation, where its' real priorities lies. I'm not talking about the fluffy vision statement on the Chairman's Room. Such management must have an intimate knowledge of the industry they are in and how they assist society at large.

2. People First
Often, in the pursuit of efficiency and best practices, people are discarded just as a production factor. Any management practices that promotes the disembodiment factor is not a wise management theory. This is especially the case in outsourcing. Firstly, the people within the corporation are put last. Through outsourcing, legislation meant to protect employees in case of retrenchment are circumvented.

Customers outside the corporation are being shortchanged by the outsourcing of their manufacturing, warranty, customer complaints and other functions. They are unable to speak to the corporations that make the product in the first place. This disembodiment makes it easy for ethics to be ignored. After all, why would I care about producing contaminated milk for babies to drink if I never know who my ultimate consumers will be?

This reminds me of an old Twilight Zone tale. Someone comes up to you with a machine with a one red button on it. If you press the button, someone out there will die and you will be rewarded with a million dollars. It's someone you have never met that is totally unrelated with it. Do you do it? Of course, there was a catch 22 at the end of the tale...

3. Organic Growth
Leverage. That's seems to be what's fueling the excessive growth of corporations these days. I feel that this is ridiculous. Just like a person, there is a time for growth, a time for maturity, a time of reflection and a time for death. Most so-called star companies manufacture profits from leverage. I prefer a management theory that acknowledges and accepts organic growth. A corporation that seeks growth that is in line with its' purpose and not for profits' sake. And if one day, the corporation realizes that its' purpose is at its' end, make an allowance to die gracefully by making sufficient provisions for its' employees and stakeholders. For example, the cigarettes industry.

Phew! That turned out to be a long comment. Just some thoughts off the top of my head. Feel free to discuss this further.



Dear Seno,

Thanks for visiting and your kind comment. Hope you drop by often :)


Damien Tan

Yes, outsourcing was (and probably still is) one of the great wisdoms of the 20th century. It's a lovely word in India because they've gotten rich from outsourcing but in the US, people are angry that their jobs have flown overseas.

On the people-first theme, there's an increasing view that labor unions are partly to blame for the US automaker collapse. Unions exist to protect its members welfare and they impose work conditions that include salary, bonuses and pensions. These increase as standard of living increase. I believe American union auto workers are paid 3-4 times more than their equivalent around the world.

This trickles down to cost. The industry was already reeling from a management in love with fuel inefficient cars like my first Buick, a car built by General Motors that burnt RM1.00 in fuel per kilometer. Throw in labor union overheads and nobody outside the US will buy a car from you. Its just too expensive. Then there's the old wisdom of shared components that's now becoming a new threat and the stubborn insistence on left hand drive configurations. So to think that the management secrets of these companies have become best-sellers was kinda shocking.

I like the people-first theme. I'll like it better if it wasn't always on a collision course with the shareholder return. When companies go public, if shareholders aren't happy with the returns, they could force changes to true purpose via hostile takeovers. Unfortunately the one that has the final say is always the one with the money, not the one with the heart.

Back to the question on wisdom. IMHO, ordinary wisdom depends on knowledge. Most knowledge unfortunately have an expiry date. During my grandma's days it wasn't wise to cut your fingernails after dark. Now that we have light bulbs, it not a big deal any more. Its no different for investment strategies and military strategies. All these wisdoms will decay, rendered unwise by new insights, new knowledge and really fast computers. Who knows, a hundred years from now, even the wisdom of Warren Buffet might appear silly.

That was the lesson I learnt at the book store anyway - that even the wisdom of Sun Tzu is not absolute.



The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines WISDOM as:-

"The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting"

Therefore, it may be that your QUESTION of whether wisdom is temporary or permanent, is in itself faulty.

Wisdom is what you need to discern between good and poor methodologies and strategies.

Wisdom itself is NOT a strategy.

Outsourcing is NOT wisdom.

Wisdom is the ability to discern whether outsourcing is good.

There are many universal laws which will remain true always (every action has an opposite reaction etc.).

Wisdom is using these laws to evaluate strategies and methodologies.


Damien Tan

"Therefore, it may be that your QUESTION of whether wisdom is temporary or permanent, is in itself faulty."

Not if you use's definition where Wisdom means "wise sayings or teachings; precepts."

So by their definition, "Outsourcing is good" is a piece of wisdom.

Semantics and different dictionaries aside, I understand where you're coming from about wisdom being a tool to discern between good and poor methodologies and strategies.

By that definition, we humans aren't proving to be particularly wise creatures are we.


"wise sayings or teachings; precepts"

we then have to define what is "wise" to understand what is a wise saying or a wise precept.

and from your source, "wise" is "having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right; possessing discernment, judgment, or discretion".

so we still come back to the point that wisdom is about discernment :-p

'outsourcing is good' still doesn't qualify as wisdom. it is just a statement.

'outsourcing is good because it is profitable for us to take advantage of wage inequities between countries' may qualify as a piece of selfish wisdom.

and on that score, i think the problem is not so much that "we humans aren't proving to be particularly wise creatures".

the problem is that we are just downright selfish.

the managers who implemented (and profited) from outsourcing are mostly not around anymore now that the companies' asses are getting kicked. even if they are, we can't get back the fat bonuses they pocketed.

good of you to bring up this discussion though... :)


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I thought that was the lesson I learn at the book store anyway - that even the wisdom of Sun Tzu is not absolute.

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