By Greg Fisher
Last week I had the honour of being involved in a set of meetings in Beijing, which represented the inaugural meeting of the Hanwang Forum, of which I am a member. There are many very supportive things I would say about this Forum but in this article I would like to focus on how this Forum came to be, which was due to the leadership of a Taoist master. I want to relay my experiences here because we Westerners have a lot to learn from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which curiously has a great deal of overlap with Complexity theory.
I must emphasise up front that I am referring to a Taoist style of leadership, not Chinese. For most of the past 60 years, China has been influenced by a centrally-controlled way of thinking, which is very much the antithesis of Taoist leadership.
Over-generalising slightly, the Western attitude to leadership is about the leader deciding and articulating the destination of a group, and developing a strategy for reaching that destination. They articulate both the ends and the means, which are carried out by those being led. Ideally, also, the leader declares the principles and values upon which the whole movement is based, which the followers are required to adhere to. In my experience this tends to be followed by a lot of mutterings about the lack of leadership skills of the shepherd by the sheep.
The Hanwang Forum came about through the leadership of a Taoist master who in effect did exactly the opposite of this Western leadership model. In a nutshell, what he did was to engage in dialogue with various people around the world, which led to the practical emergence of the Forum. This Forum enables a group of people to co-construct the meaning of what looks more like a movement than a forum; to co-construct the values and principles upon which the movement is and will be based; and to co-construct the nature of the problems we face and to imagine solutions together. The meetings I joined in Beijing were mostly about problems and solutions but it was clear to me that meaning, values and principles were discussed implicitly. So the nature of the leadership was to create an enabling platform and, rather than articulate end-points, principles and values, the Taoist master had developed a Forum in which this was being done by its members.
Clearly, such an approach requires trust in the people involved because they are being empowered as well as enabled. The over-generalised Western approach described above is a very low-trust approach and it is one in which trust and power is conferred only on the leader.
I should also mention that for the whole of the two days of meetings, the Taoist master stood in the background. There was a two-minute slot when he had to take the microphone but, ironically, this was in service to a sub-group presenting its conclusions to the whole group. I took that opportunity to mention to a number of people that he was the Taoist master largely responsible for the Forum. Most of them had heard of him but weren’t aware of who he was.
Over the past 18 months in preparing for this inaugural meeting, I have witnessed other instructive parts of his leadership that I wish I could mention here in detail. I should not say too much because to be effective some of it probably requires people to be unaware of what is being done (or not) and why. But I will say that on two occasions I noted this Taoist master not do something. On one of these occasions I was made aware that the non-action was a deliberate choice that had a specific reason. I was told about this quiet decision not to do something on this occasion for a good reason, and it made me ponder how many other non-actions I hadn’t observed. Importantly, the intent was not to be manipulative, it was a part of the whole enabling process. Another very clever thing he did was to choose a Western counterpart who, frankly, has similar (humble) leadership skills and who has helped to cultivate the forum from the Western end. He is a good enough friend of mine that I know he would be uncomfortable with me mentioning him by name.
As the world has become more complex, and as this complexity intensifies further (which is probably likely), we need more of this Taoist style of leadership. The Western approach is really only useful in non-changing and relatively simple environments, which are now less prevalent. If an environment were simple enough for one person to fully grasp, and that same person could choose an appropriate destination and route, then a Western leadership style might not be unreasonable. But, as is now cliché to say, the world is now more interconnected and complex than ever, which renders the Western approach increasingly obsolete (aside: it now feels cliché to say it’s a cliché).
The Taoist leadership approach is conducive to crowd-sourcing analysis of some problem-space and the legitimate co-construction of meaning, values, etc., within a group of people. This style is much more suited to the world in which we now live. By contrast, the Western approach will be relatively uninformed because it does not seek the views of all stakeholders; and it would be illegitimate because the so-called strategy (and values) do not emerge from these same stakeholders.
I wish I could say, with hand on heart, that Complexity theory leads us to a view of leadership that is identical to what I saw before and during the meetings in Beijing. I cannot. It does get us miles away from the traditional (and over-generalised, I know) model of Western leadership described above to something much more like what I witnessed. But the key difference is that Complexity theory would, in my interpretation, give us impersonal recommendations about servant / host / enabling leadership. What I saw before and in Beijing was a whole personality manifesting itself in many ways, including in the form of leadership, and communicating on multiple levels, including personal and intellectual. It was very natural, very humble, and born of a very deep and mature philosophy from which we have a lot to learn.