23 May 2019
A top-down, command-and-control style of management will not help produce creative or flexible thinkers among Hong Kong students. Photo: HKEJ
A top-down, command-and-control style of management will not help produce creative or flexible thinkers among Hong Kong students. Photo: HKEJ

Centralized management doomed to fail

One’s achievement should not be evaluated by him/herself but by others.

Influential people may worry about losing their authority, but the irony is, those who are most respected are humble people who admit their own mistakes and are even able to mock themselves.

I recently read retired US general Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams. He was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s.

McChrystal reviewed his experience of failure in Iraq in his book.

He said that, for quite some time, he had been wondering why the lavishly resourced and exquisitely trained US-led coalition forces were beaten by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was poorly trained, equipped and supplied.

It was because the AQI was very flexible, adaptable and efficient.

Its leaders would provide a rough direction and strategy and delegate authority to the lower-level commanders, instead of using traditional styles of command-and-control micromanaging.

When even a general realizes it is necessary to adjust traditional management methods in a new era, it proves that old governance models are not suitable to handle today’s complex issues.

A leader who handles everything will have to put in more effort than one who allows his executives to deal with various matters for him.

Apple’s late chairman, Steve Jobs, once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Only when a leader prefers to hire obedient but incompetent staff will a top-down management style be more suitable. Otherwise, a bottom-up way will be more suitable today.

Walter Isaacson, who wrote a biography of Jobs, said in his foreword for Team of Teams that the greatest innovations have not come from a lone inventor or from solving problems in a top-down, command-and-control style.

Instead, Isaacson said, great successes come from a “team of teams” working together in pursuit of a common goal.

A bottom-up approach is worth adopting not only in the military or business fields but can also be useful in nurturing the younger generation.

I visited quite a number of kindergartens recently.

The principals all told me the goal of education is to equip learners with an independent analytical mind as well as sufficient problem-solving skills to cope with an ever-changing society.

Spoon-feeding or exam-oriented training, such as the infamous extensive practices for the Territory-wide System Assessment using mock exams, are pedagogical methods from the last generation.

If we insist on sticking to the old practices, we are killing off the future of our youth.

(And don’t forget that the children of most of the officials who speak highly of the TSA are not suffering in the Hong Kong education system. They have either beem sent overseas or are studying at international schools in the city.)

It’s time to apply genuine 21st century logic for management and governance.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 19.

Translation by Myssie You

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Member of HKUST’s MBA Alumni Association

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe