If you’re in the job market today, you might have noticed that every employer is looking for leadership skills. You also might find that your potential superiors insist on comparing the boardroom to a battlefield, but quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in business school is so passé. To stand out and bring real revolutionary zeal to your workplace, it’s not a bad idea to turn to China’s other master military tactician and theoretician, Chairman Mao.
With your pen at attention and your rolodex cocked and loaded, start by addressing the troops with your wise, thoughtful pearls of wisdom, such as:
Never go unprepared into a battle.
Bù dǎ wú zhǔnbèi zhī zhàng.
As military advice, that’s pretty standard. This rule was outlined as one of the 10 military principles in a report entitled “The Current Situation and Our Tasks” that Mao made in 1947 at a Party meeting amid the war against the Nationalists. That year was the war’s turning point for the People’s Liberation Army, and they went on the offensive. Sun Tzu also said something similar: “preparation is the foundation of victory.”
However, preparation isn’t everything. Anyone who makes a plan based on pure assumptions or simple experience is bound to fail. Mao emphasized this lesson to Communist Party cadres in the 1930s after conducting extensive research on the economic situation in a Jiangxi village.
To have not done research is to have no right to speak.
Méiyǒu diàochá, jiù méiyǒu fāyánquán.
One thing every leader needs is confidence, and as a leader in the workplace, you’ll need that in spades, what with the hateful bosses, scheming colleagues, and corporate takeover culture. Assure your staff of your wisdom with:
Tactically, take your rival seriously; strategically, take them lightly.
Zhànshù shàng zhòngshì duìshǒu, zhànlüè shàng miǎoshì duìshǒu.
Seemingly contradictory, it means that you have go into the conflict with every confidence that you’ll beat your rival, but you are still very cautious when it comes to the specific measures, careful to approach one problem at a time to make sure that step ensures victory. This sentiment appears frequently in Mao’s military writings, expressing something found in one of his more famous metaphors: the paper tiger (纸老虎 zhǐlǎohǔ). Mao used this concept to explain imperialists’ and reactionaries’ lack of real power, and you could say the same of rival companies to boost confidence.
All opponents in a competition are paper tigers.
Yīqiè jìngzhēng duìshǒu dōu shì zhǐlǎohǔ.
But what is confidence if you can’t inspire? No team of workers ever starts out at the top. There is no end of ordinary platitudes you could choose from, but for a truly revolution-ready phrase to rally your workforce, the Chairman has got you covered:
A single spark can start a prairie fire.
Xīngxīng zhī huǒ, kěyǐ liáoyuán.
No revolution comes without obstacles, and you need to make sure that your team doesn’t lose hope. Mao’s inspirational words about the fate of China back in 1945 may come in handy.
The prospects are bright; the road twists and turns.
Qiántú shì guāngmíng de, dàolù shì qūzhé de.
Of course, you can also play the “collective power” card to motivate your team from time to time; mentioning a common goal is a pretty good move, reminding them why they are with you. So, try this following heart-stirring proclamation found in Mao’s 1944 essay, “To Serve the People.”
From the five lakes and four seas, we’ve come to join forces for a common goal.
Wǒmen dōu shì láizì wǔhúsìhǎi, wèile yīgè gòngtóng de mùbiāo, zǒu dào yī qǐláile.
But to really inspire your team, you may have to set an example yourself. As the Chairman also said, “The power of the model is infinite.” (榜样 的力量是无穷的。Bǎngyàng de lìliàng shì wúqióng de.)
When it comes to specific business strategies, Mao still had a great deal to offer, such as his still-relevant insights into the socio-economic structure of China. For instance, if your goal is to make your brand a household name across the nation, follow the revolutionary steps of the Chairman and his strategy of “base areas,” or 根据地 (gēnjùdì).
We first want to establish base areas in small-to-medium cities.
Wǒmen shǒuxiān yào zài zhōngxiǎo chéngshì jiànlì pǐnpái de gēnjùdì.
For the next step, we have to look at Mao’s general policy of revolution: from the countryside to the city, or “encircling the city from the rural areas” (农村包围城市 nóngcūn bāowéi chéngshì). Today, you can apply this to many different business models, including e-commerce.
“Encircling the city from the rural areas” is our marketing strategy.
“Nóngcūn bāowéi chéngshì” shì wǒmen de shìchǎng zhànlüè.
Of course, business is often extremely competitive, so you have to be patient. Be prepared for a protracted war, or 持久战 (chíjiǔ zhàn), as the Chairman did in 1938 regarding the Anti-Japanese War.
The competition is trying to fight a protracted war with us.
Jìngzhēng duìshǒu dǎsuàn gēn wǒmen dǎ chíjiǔ zhàn.
In a time of war, the Chairman may order the army to have “obedience to orders in all actions.” But an authoritarian leadership style might ultimately hurt productivity and creativity in other situations. Learn to delegate, like the Chairman.
I can rest easy with you at the helm.
Nǐ bànshì, wǒ fàngxīn.
Those were supposedly the words Mao spoke to his hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng, before his death. If all goes well, you and your team will succeed in your business endeavors, but ever the vigilant general, you have to remind your team of the larger goals, much like Mao did after the Party had won the civil war in 1949.
Finishing this project is only the first step in the long march.
Wánchéng zhège xiàngmù zhǐshì wànlǐ chángzhēng de dì yī bù.
But there’s no harm in a little optimism when things go well. Be sure to bolster morale:.
Our enterprise will march from victory to victory!
Wǒmen de shìyè jiāng cóng shènglì zǒuxiàng shènglì!
If by any chance your project fails on account of uncontrollable factors, it’s OK to let go. Like Mao, you can express your disappointment with folk slang.
If the Heavens want to make it rain, if a mother wants to remarry—let it be!
Tiān yào xiàyǔ, niang yào jià rén, suí tā qù ba!
Of course, the actual workplace requires tact and not everything the Chairman did is a good idea in the office. Let’s say it was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.
“How To Talk Like A Maoist General” is a story from our issue, “Taobao Town”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store