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Leadership Lessons from Liu Bang

I have just finished reading 'A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China's Past Through its Proverbs' by Adeline Yen Mah. Ten years on since my first read, I am even more impressed by how Yen Mah weaves an engaging account of the life and times of the First Emperor of China as recorded in China's Grand Historian Sima Qian's book Shiji and seen through her eyes. Here is how she describes the leadership of warrior Liu Bang :
It is amazing that a man like Liu Bang, who came from a low-class background and maintained the habits and behaviour of a peasant, should have succeeded in capturing the people’s imagination in such a short time. By all accounts, he was lazy and feckless as a young man. Even when he became chief of a ting, he was always squatting down on his mat like a peasant, something considered undignified by nobles. His language was uncouth. Scholars and officials alike looked down upon him and, with the exception of Zhang Liang, all his followers were commoners, mostly from his home town of Pei.

However, unlike the other warlords, he cared about the grievances of the common people and had a genuine desire to help them. They, in turn, felt understood and were attracted to him. His aptitude for recognising talent, his willingness to accept advice from all sorts of people, and his ability to make quick decisions, were all powerful assets. He knew instinctively that good publicity was vital and often sent emissaries in advance of his troops to announce his virtuous intentions.

Despite his peasant background, or perhaps because of it, Liu Bang became the emblem of a just and benevolent ruler. He was widely perceived by the people as someone who would exercise power for the benefit of the masses. He made them feel that he was one of them and, if given the authority to govern, would do so not in his own interest like all the previous monarchs, but in the interest of all.

(Source : A Thousand Pieces of Gold)
It is leadership 101 indeed. Liu Bang's leadership approach is best summarised in a funny recorded exchange with one of his generals Hahn Xin. ‘How many troops do you think I am capable of directing?’ Liu Bang asked. ‘One hundred thousand maximum,’ Hahn Xin replied. ‘What about you?’ ‘The more the better. There is no limit.’ ‘If that is the case, why are you my captive?’ ‘Even though Your Majesty has little ability in directing soldiers, you have great ability in directing generals. That is why I am your captive. Your talent is not manmade but an inborn gift from Heaven.’

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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