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“Management is a Truly Liberal Art”

Author: Shao Ming Lo

              Founder of Peter F. Drucker Academy

              Chairman of Bright China Group

Presented at “ Management as a Liberal Art : Revitalization & Localization” Conference. Oct 13, 2017. Hong Kong

I am very honored to share with you my personal view about “Management is a truly Liberal Art”. First, I like to touch a side-note pertaining the translation of “Liberal Art”. We usually translate it as “博雅藝術” in Chinese, but I’d rather translate it as “自由技藝”(free style of technique and art form), 技術的“技”、藝術的“藝”. Because I recon this is closer to its original English meaning – Liberal Art. Liberal means freedom, art can be translated to 藝術 in Chinese. But management itself must be applicable, it is to produce results and that’s why I think it is not only a technique but also an art. And that is also why I used these words - “自由技藝”(free style of technique and art form). In the view of the father of modern management - Peter F. Drucker, he thinks the contribution of his establishment of management as a discipline is the uniqueness of his perspective in observing and researching management. Before Drucker, management was considered as a Science or some categorized it as Humanity, or Social Science. Drucker endowed a more apt label to management, he called it a Liberal Art.


On January 18th of 1999, when he was approaching 90 years of age, Drucker wrote the following:


I focused this discipline (Management)on People and Power;on Values;Structure and Constitution,And above all on Responsibilities — that is focused the Discipline of Management on Management as a truly Liberal Art.


In Drucker’s unique perspective, as he had mentioned as above, he focused on people and power; he focused on the values of both managers and the people influenced by management. As a discipline, certainly Drucker had researched those concrete elements, such as: the management of organizational structure and constitution and the means, process and tools derived thereafter. But any disciplines can relate to these structure and constitution eventually, the unique point I think is his perspective focused on people and power, and values. Then, why focusing on people and power is correlated with the essence of dealing Management as a Liberal Art? What is the important fundamental value that’s hidden behind Drucker’s view on people and power? What is the connection between these values of Drucker’s and his faith? How did all of these influenced and permeated into the structure, constitution, means and tools of management? I’d like to try to answer these questions as follows.


Few months ago, I read about the history of the first President of United States, the founding father of America, George Washington. At the peak of his political career while being supported by all parties and people, and was encouraged for re-election of his presidency, he determinedly rejected the suggestion but resigned instead. This incidence reflected George Washington’s understanding on “power”, it echoes Drucker’s view on people and power. Drucker is a Christian. Although he seldom discussed his faith in his writings, yet obviously his faith has a profound influence throughout his research and studies. I personally realized this when reading the Bible. It came to my comprehension that man should not hold power, only the Creator that created man has power because the Creator is above man. Man only possesses “authority”. That means only in a specific time, under a specific circumstance, man was given “authority” based upon his morality, knowledge and ability. This is not only true to any individual but also true to all human being. Although sovereignty is in the people in all democratic countries, yet even this sovereignty is an authorized authority, authorized by GOD. Under this authorization, man is merely a “tool” that bears free will and takes responsibility at the same time. Man is a tool of GOD that man cannot rule, manipulate or control other man by his own intention. Only with this understanding that man can be humble and responsible. Only then, man can examine himself with the righteous standard that came from GOD and is above man.


Bible first defined the relationship between man and GOD, and therefore resulted in the difference between “power” and “authority”, and subsequently defined the equality among people with authority, in another word, man all possess value, creativity, function and should be respected and encouraged to create. These are all rooted from the faith of Christianity. Bible first defined the relationship between God and man, then the relationship among man as individuals. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States declared that “All men are created equal”, that all men have rights, not power, that are birthright and self-evident, which exactly were originated from the faith of Christianity. Thus, obviously, faith determines values, especially as above mentioned values that is the most basic and core values.


There is an interesting phenomenon derived from the same faith and core values as discussed above. The United States as an western country, have truly practiced “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)” of the East. China is the one that proclaimed “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)” but the Chinese own understanding and interpretation of it are kaleidoscopically   dazzling. More often the Chinese emphasize on “Yong”, which means regularity or convention because people are afraid and avoid to be the “exposed rafters that are the first to rot” or “sticking your neck out”. They seldom pay attention to what “Zhong” means. They assume this “Zhong” means “center”, is “impartial”. But the true question is “impartial” from what? Most people didn't realize “Zhong” actually means “Truth”, is “The absolute guideline”. In Confucianism they declare “Zhong” is “justice of the nature” or “heavenly principles”; in Christianity they call it “God”. The wordings may be different but both recognize the “Truth” is absolute and above human being. With this standard, all authorities and positions are temporary and limited. They are subject to the conditions of time and locality of the event. Therefore, the federal decentralization of the United States was a good fit of “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”, a design originally for political system but extended into the design of structure and policy of business management. This was first observed by Drucker and summarized by him. The management tool created by Peter F. Drucker — “Management by Objectives and Self Control”, poised the values and the purpose between organization and individual, between society and organization, which in itself is “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”. For more than two hundred years, the United States have innovated omnibearingly in economy, society, science and knowledge. “Innovation” is a design of poise that balances change and non-change, development and continuity, to replace revolution. Revolution is extreme, innovation is “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”. Any designs that is laid out according to “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”, there will be “Zhong” — center, as the principle for balancing. On the example of federal decentralization, the principle of balancing is: to ensure the independence of judgment and the impartiality of decision-making. Management by objectives and self-control lies in whether individuals and organization can bear function and produce contribution. As for innovation, it must be able to create new values and avoid damages.


Let’s take a look at another important management tool - Decision-making. Decision-making is the most basic management tool because it involves the use of power, therefore it can be viewed as an Art. Why did Drucker emphasize that decision-making should start with opinions, but not from finding realities or facts, as we normally will assume? He explained that “reality” or “facts” are people’s perspective based on their view on the matter. Eventually all decision-making are based upon the comprehension and the understanding of the manager for that matter. Particularly in the decision-making on innovation, usually assumptions are established relying on the opinions on the truth, decisions are then made for execution based on the assumptions. Constant reviewing is essential when executing that decision and possible adjustments are made, sometimes even turning over previous assumptions if necessary and cease executing the decision. This, is because all decision-making is based upon the limited understanding of human being, therefore should avoid being lopsided and keep multi-prospective. And though, even a good decision was made after collecting opinions from all stakeholders and knowledge related parties, it still requires to be tested out in reality. These are exactly “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”! Drucker said the essence of America is politics. But what is that? That is being all inclusive and polybasic. Knowing that decision makers may make mistakes, so they have to be open with opinions, they have to allow people to keep their own opinions and do not compel them. What about China? China is the one that declared the notion of “The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)”, but for some reasons, in the past nearly 2,500 years, China had trapped herself in politics that always been going extremes which ended up either in rigidity or rotten, refused to change or reform, or resorting to revolution and war. Politics and history had impacted Chinese society in all aspects that in turn shaped its culture, suppressed innovation, especially the original innovation.

I now would like to summarize as follows:


First: The fundamental question, or to call it the bull’s eye, of management is how the management and people are influenced by management view and correctly dealing with people and power because management in essence is against autocracy, dictatorship and monopoly. Drucker has a very important quote: “Performing responsible management is the alternative to tyranny and our only protection against it.” Here tyranny is not (集)as in collective but is (極)as in extreme, it is, in English, totalitarian. Therefore, the greatest function, the most precious value, the most neglected meaning of management is that management can eliminate the soil of tyranny and totalitarianism that have created great harms and damages to humanity.


Second: The true question behind the question actually lies on the fundamental values of each manager and the people influenced by management. How do you view and assess humankind? How do you view and assess yourself and your fellow man? Your faith or your innermost belief determines your values.


Third: I have given four examples that came from Drucker’s management in structure and constitution to illustrate and prove the above 2 points as how they influenced and permeated into structure, constitution and tool of management. They are: federal decentralization; management by objective and self-control; decision-making and its principles and processes; and innovation. I would like to make additional remarks on innovation. Innovation is an alternative tool for revolution. It can be as small as applying to a part of process of a production, which we usually call it process reform. It can also be applied to as big as the social reform of a country, region or the whole society. Therefore innovation is possibly the most influential management tool.


Forth: When discussing the above four examples I referred to our Chinese tradition and culture, especially the understanding of Zhong Yong from Confucianism. The orthodox and original Zhong Yong is closely linked and echoed with modern management.  This proved that the civilization in either Western or Eastern cultures are interconnected and integrated. Management as a truly Liberal Art can bring together cultures from both the East and the West, it is a bridge that connects the two cultures.


Lastly, I wish to iterate that management is not a science of success for any individual or an organization. It is not to make an enterprise earn money or superior in productivity but to make everyone who is in the human society or community healthier, less harms and sufferings. All in the society or community can freely choose his or her own responsibility for the society or community based on their innate good intentions and potentials. All can freely utilize their talents to create value for others while fulfilling their responsibilities and grow into a better and more abled beings during this productive process. This is the true meaning of Management as a Liberal Art. Thank you very much!

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