Leading from the heart by learning from Chairman Mao

Doing good

Some painful debates with colleagues this week led me to reflect on the shrill ways in which we debate right and wrong in our business lives. Maybe the below is a bit heavy 🤔, but it is a topic that we pay a heavy price for glossing over…

As a primary (middle) school student, I vividly remember our Catholic-priest-headmaster posing a conundrum to the class: “Everybody only does what they believe to be good. So how do we explain someone who kills?” The class was stumped.

The answer is so logically simple “Someone kills because they believe it is good”. This is a profound lesson in ethics — both about ourselves, and about others.

As young students, this flew in the face of our intuition that people doing what we believe is bad must be hatching plans to wilfully do bad. This intuition is reinforced from our early years by a Western style of story telling that divides the world into (wilfully) good people and (wilfully) bad people. Us and Them.

In the West, Chairman Mao is widely seen as a monster who directly caused the death of tens of millions of Chinese people. In China a large number of people see him as a hero who defended the unity of the Chinese nation while delivering spectacular economic progress.

Leaving aside our individual perspectives on the particular context, I believe absolutely that Mao believed that he was doing good, and that everything he did he believed was (on balance) in the best interest of people around him and Chinese people in general. Our headmaster was right — everybody only does what they believe to be good.

What does this mean for us in business?

Being deeply suspicious that we are doing good

Knowing that everyone internally believes that s/he is doing good, should make me feel distinctly uncomfortable about justifying my actions based purely on my internal feeling that I am doing what is good (as natural and right as that feels). Am I really understanding and serving other people or am I an ideologue with a mission that feels good (ready to do battle with other ideologues)?

Ethics unhinged

Does this mean that what is good is purely relative? Was Chairman Mao good, because he believed he was doing good? Can each person just decide what is good from their point of view (their ideology, their religion, their values, their ‘tribe’, their strategy), and only be held accountable to this personal concept of good?

This is the modern state of intractable ‘ethical’ discussions that lead inevitably to hysterical debate, violence and environmental destruction. Or internally in organisations, it leads to more mundane behaviours like backstabbing, dysfunction and inaction.

What is Good?

Without resorting to metaphysical arguments, I think there are simple and challenging ways that we, in business, can share an ethical compass that creates real alignment and meaningful action, based on a common agreement of what is good:

  1. Respecting human dignity above everything else; dignity of our clients, our staff, our partners, the communities in which we do business. This always trumps other ‘ideological’ or ‘strategic’ goals. Trampling on human dignity in the interest of a ‘higher goal’ can never lead to a better result.
  2. Living by a purpose that contributes to humans flourishing (communal, not personal).
  3. Respecting mastery and ‘technical’ skill, rooted in the virtues that these technical traditions establish. Technical traditions are built on the shoulders of giants, whether the skill is finance, music, management, engineering, politics, literature, law, education, medicine, fine art…; communities¹ embody and give authority to this mastery; the people in our teams (hopefully) draw their legitimacy and learning based on these communities’ standards and virtues.
    Respecting the mastery that others have to offer is difficult to recognise without real humility and effort; not just respecting skill, but connecting with the virtues that underpin this skill, and the purpose to which it is collectively put to improve the human condition; and the history and tradition on which this is built.
    In a world that values expediency and utility, staying true to virtues like honesty, transparency, sharing, tutelage, courage, freedom, humility, justice is a lot harder than we like to admit on both a personal and organisational level. But it is a source of great practical wisdom that is rooted in striving for excellence towards a greater purpose. Most importantly, it provides a concrete foundation for resolving difficult discussions.²
  4. Granting and trusting individual accountability based on mastery and virtue. Allowing decisions to be made at the lowest accountable level, because we can trust the traditions and skills and the methods on which they are based³. Allowing work to flourish in a spirit of learning. Refusing to allow decisions to be compromised or delayed based on opinions that have no real ‘ethical’ basis (‘Ethical’ here refers to this current description of what is good). Leaders should humbly differentiate between the authority bestowed by their position in an organisation and the much broader authority of the disciplines on which their teams rely.⁴


In this context, the leadership we provide has three important functions worth highlighting:

  1. Recognising, with great generosity, that everyone is trying to do good (with an implicit sense of purpose) and should be given some chance to be understood.
  2. Representing an ethical, activist voice that rejects relative (dysfunctional) concepts of what is good, and articulates a purposeful, action-based orientation and culture for our organisation or team; not just a strategy, but a deeper ethical fabric that is universal enough to be inclusive and inspiring. This is a life-long personal journey.
  3. When confronted by dysfunctional behaviour, do we resort to commanding or do we embrace the opportunity to reframe the ethical conversation?


  1. Communities here refer to the groups that embody the knowledge and practices of a discipline and are the structure in which it flourishes and grows: professional organisations, academia, regulatory bodies, guilds, etc. These communities are a source of authority for the discipline. The authority comes from well recognised virtues that underpin the practice of the discipline. Some of these communities are centuries / millennia old. But they evolve, especially as technology opens up space for discussion and learning at a larger scale; retaining a strong connection to a tradition and authority.
  2. To get a full justification: Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘After Virtue’ (1981)
  3. This may sound obvious to an accountant, engineer or lawyer, but in other disciplines, this is not so obvious, and is not always carried through into the corporate world. All disciplines don’t have the same traditions and methods, and mixing disciplines in teams creates a whole new challenge.
  4. The tech giants of the last two decades have succeeded largely because of this, while older incumbents often stumble by not understanding this.

Picture Credit: Peter Griffin




Technology, Finance and Design — Co-founder of IOUze

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James Nicolson

James Nicolson

Technology, Finance and Design — Co-founder of IOUze

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