Xi in a hall of mirrors | The Financial Express

Xi in a hall of mirrors

Many corporate leaders also believe in the theory that dissent is bad and agreement is good—always

Xi in a hall of mirrors
Xi Jinping (IE)

Few outside China knew him even last week, but the whole world has now heard of Li Qiang. The low-profile Li, who has no experience as a vice-premier and no special political achievement to back him up, is about to become China’s second-most powerful leader and the next premier at the annual legislative session in March when Li Keqiang steps down after two terms.

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The appointment is yet another example of Chinese leader Xi Jinping placing loyalty and trustworthiness above all else. The Guardian quotes Jean-Pierre Cabestan, senior researcher at Paris-based Asia Centre, as saying that “Li is someone close to Xi and has his trust. Xi is now surrounded by ‘yes’ men and there is no space for other rivals.” This means that Li has to follow Xi 100%. Whatever Xi tells him to do, he will implement it—the reason why Xi hand-picked him as his number two.

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By going in for a significant reshuffle of the all-powerful political standing committee, Xi has ensured that he is now surrounded by a group where nobody with a different perspective to him has been included. Apart from Li, the other significant name in the committee is Cai Qi, the mayor of Beijing. His road to power has been breath-taking—he was not even among the Communist Party’s top 350 leaders before the last Party Congress. Now, he is the fifth-most powerful person in China. Reason: Cai’s fierce loyalty to Xi.

In his address, Xi had promised to usher in a “new era” of Chinese power and presence on the international stage. This new era apparently does not require new thinking—it is all about ‘I say, you agree and do’

It is obvious that as he becomes the ruler “for life”, Xi wants to be surrounded by a small group of people who deliver the good news and hide the bad. The danger however is that his views can get controlled by those who are feeding his perceptions.

Xi would do well to perhaps remember what Filipp Golikov, the chief of the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate, did to Joseph Stalin during the spring of 1941. It was Golikov’s job to pass on the almost irrefutable intelligence indicating an imminent Nazi invasion. But Golikov discounted or manipulated intelligence so that it would corroborate his master’s views that Hitler wouldn’t turn back on his promise not to attack Russia. Golikov apparently took this suicidal step as Stalin was known not to take kindly to senior officers who disagreed with his views. The result: when Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, Soviet forces were taken entirely by surprise.

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Xi’s decision to formalise a personality cult and reward blind loyalists may be the most high-profile one, but he is certainly not an exception. In fact, many of his counterparts in other countries have also actively followed this principle. There are many examples of giant companies where even senior-management people think that always agreeing with the boss is what they need to do to survive on a dysfunctional-leadership landscape where all the signals and messages confirm for them that dissent is bad and agreement is good.

Many leaders feel comfortable surrounding themselves with ‘like-minded’ people and then reward them for constant agreement. It is all too easy for leaders to fall into this yes-man culture as it is human nature to process only confirmatory feedback about your skills, and to go deaf to the counter-evidence. Also, surrounding yourself with people who always agree can be like being curled up with a warm blanket—a sort of cosy comfort zone.

But it can be dangerous—there are umpteen examples of corporate leaders who have been isolated from reality as they are being controlled by those who are feeding his perception—for all you know, that might be a highly distorted worldview. As a result, the yes-men around the leader derive greater powers over the organisation, often leading to a flight of the more deserving candidates.

But make no mistake—these yes-men can be the smartest people around as they seem to know exactly how to play the organisational structure—they can see who are the rising stars and the people to link their halos to. There are examples of an umpteen number of corporate leaders who claim open-door policies, but routinely reject or side-step feedback, creating a vacuum where only the amendable are consulted.

The fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, captures this toxic culture beautifully. The story describes a self-absorbed emperor who commissions weavers to make him magic clothes, which the weavers claim can only be seen by people fit for their positions. In reality, they make nothing, charge the emperor, and then allow everyone’s fears of speaking up and being labelled as inadequate to take care of the rest. At the end of the story, with everyone in the kingdom fearfully claiming to see the emperor’s clothes, a child is the one to point out the emperor’s nakedness.

There are many real-life corporate instances of authoritative decision-making that went unquestioned. It is sad but true that business success tends to overshadow such personal weaknesses of leaders, and companies all over the world are inclined to ignore such mundane things as long as the leader is delivering the profit goals. As a result, people under them often act out of self-preservation and fear, instead of internal inspiration.

The Xi way of ruling in a hall of mirrors can however lead to a situation where the leader is totally cut off from reality. A leader needs to realise that everyone has blind-spots and weaknesses—so seeking and accepting critical feedback from colleagues ensures a balanced perspective.


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First published on: 28-10-2022 at 05:00 IST