Listening to Wan Li

October 30, 2007

I don’t know how many of you saw this article in the Financial Times, but it provides a classic example of a leader who acts in a way that is consistent with principles of complexity. Wan Li is 91 years old and leaders everywhere have a lot to learn from him. In the late 70’s, as Party Secretary of the Anhui province, he supported the Chinese farmers from the Xiaogang village who bravely decided to experiment with privatizing their rural output. This set the precedent for numerous rural reforms in China. Here’s my favorite quote from the article:

“The 1980s reforms were a classic example of a bottom-up, wisdom-of-the-crowd success story. A market economy, in essence, is an economic democracy. Mr Wan once told his subordinates always to assume that they were in the wrong if the farmers wanted to do something different from them.”

Mr. Wan listens. In an age of excess communication options, many leaders are finding it increasingly challenging to communicate. A common mistake is a tendency to adopt a broadcast approach when an interactive one would be more appropriate – especially in conditions of complexity. Clearly, Mr. Wan knows the difference between the two and has understood for a long time the paramount importance of listening to the wisdom-of-the-crowd.

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