A few months ago, I had the pleasure of joining current and former HR directors from Alibaba, Baidu, LeEco and ZJS Express on a trip from Beijing to Fuzhou to study the fundamentals of Wing Chun kung-fu (五枚詠春) from renowned master Zheng Zujie.
After two days of being introduced to the physical technique and mental philosophy of Wing Chun, we began to apply its principles in developing a coaching and training program to assist business leaders and teams in effectively navigating their lives, careers and today’s business environment.
What fascinated me most about Wing Chun was its core concept of the centerline. To the Wing Chun practitioner, the centerline is the focal point of all action. An imaginary line that extends down the center of the body from the forehead to the groin, the centerline represents the energy core of the body.
Every attack and defense radiates from this center. By focusing on both protecting their own center and attacking that of their opponent, the Wing Chun practitioner realizes the appropriate movements. They are able to ensure that their attacks maximize efficiency and power while preventing their opponent from dealing a severe blow.
As someone who devotes much of his time to thinking about issues of leadership and corporate culture, I found it natural to draw parallels between the concept of the centerline in Wing Chun and having a clear and strong set of values, identity, and sense of purpose in business and life: both are the central point from which energy is drawn, and for many of the individuals, businesses, and brands that are most resonant and respected in the world, it is their orientation around their “centerline” which drives their success.
The Centerline and the Golden Circle
In his wildly popular TED talk and book Start with Why, ethnographer and speaker Simon Sinek articulates a simple yet powerful concept: “As it turns out … all the great and inspiring people and organizations in the world think, act and communicate the same way.”
In his model, Sinek explains that those people and organizations communicate from the inside-out of what he calls the “Golden Circle”, which consists of three layers: first why, then how, then what.
In Sinek’s model, an effective leader or business functions like a Wing Chun fighter: flowing from their core of energy outward. Like in the Wing Chun theory, when a company or individual thinks and acts from a stable “why” center of purpose and values, decisions become clearer, trust and credibility are established, and strong, consistent brands are built.
As an example of this, Sinek refers to Steve Jobs-led Apple. Despite Jobs’ many flaws, his singular focus and sense of purpose was the central force that drove Apple’s success.
He believed in challenging the status quo, in thinking differently. To Jobs, technology was supposed to be an intuitive extension of the human mind, not simply a tool.
From the time Jobs founded Apple to the day he resigned due to his ailing health, Apple’s employees, customers, and shareholders were drawn to him because they knew what he believed in and they shared those values.
They could trust Apple and Jobs because they knew where the company’s “centerline” was.
For individuals, this sense of deeply-held values and purpose is what author and corporate trainer Jim Loehr, in his book The Power of Full Engagement, calls “spiritual energy”.
Loehr says that while spiritual energy is an essential, foundational piece for a healthy and successful life, for many of us it is ignored as we focus on the more immediately pressing issues in our day-to-day lives.
“The simple, almost embarrassing reality is that we feel too busy to search for meaning,” says Loehr.
This is like a Wing Chun practitioner saying that they are unable to focus on the centerline because they are “too busy fighting”, when in fact, fighting without a centerline focus is a surefire recipe for failure.
The central theme in the greatest business tragedies is the lack of the “centerline”.
In the professional and social circles of my life in Beijing, it is common to see this misplacement of priorities. Many entrepreneurs run around frantically, adapting their business propositions to fit whatever hot buzzword is most likely to attract investment, rather than focusing on creating real value.
Many parents and students concentrate purely on passing tests by any means necessary, rather than cultivating the passion and curiosity for learning, which develops skills and knowledge. Many professionals spend their days trying to look busy and claim credit, rather than focusing on productivity, self-development, and team contribution.
It not uncommon to see a lack of focus on the centerline at the heart of many of the business world’s greatest tragedies. Take, for example, of American energy company Enron. Having lost focus on their core purpose as an energy business, the company’s leadership engaged in a radically aggressive investment strategy, enabled by a fraudulent use of mark-to-market accounting, in which anticipated future profits from any deal were tabulated as if currently real, allowing them to claim profits that were, in fact, nonexistent.
While this practice inflated the company’s stock price for a period of time, it came crashing down in 2001, when the company suffered what was at the time the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy in history, sending their top executives to jail and resulting in the dissolution of Big Five accounting firm Arthur Anderson.
The lack of a personal centerline can also be seen in the rise and fall of Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, whose brash egotism, arrogance, and utter lack of integrity created a PR crisis, as his actions led to a toxic culture and famously unhappy drivers while his company began losing ground to competitors. (He was ousted as CEO last month.)
In China, I believe the lack of a centerline focus can also be seen in LeEco’s famous rise and fall, as the company’s goals of expansion caused them to overlook their stated number-one priority: providing value to their users. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am in fact a former LeEco employee.)
The dignity and success of the ‘modest centerline’
On a more positive note, I believe one does not have to walk too far to find healthy and successful individuals and companies who thrive because of a clear understanding of their centerline. While Simon Sinek likes to mention Apple, I am less drawn to the change-the-world stated value sets of the Apples and Googles of the world.
This is not from a lack of idealism, but from a belief in the value of authenticity. The fact is, most companies aren’t trying to change the world, and inaccurately saying that they are would be claiming a false centerline.
Instead, I am more encouraged by companies and individuals who have modest purposes and values, but stay consistent in their focus on them.
In 2015 and 2016, I delivered a training and coaching program for DHL-Sinotrans. During my time there, I was struck by the company’s clear sense of focus, and understanding of their formula for success: by being a just, fair, and reliable “employer of choice” coupled with a world-class logistics network, they are able to deliver consistent, high-quality services to their customers, making them the “provider of choice”, which then enables them to be the “investment of choice” for their shareholders.
While not exactly the sexy flash of today’s technology marketplace, by focusing on who they are and what they do best, they are able to ensure long-lasting, sustainable results. They have grown to become the largest international express provider in China, and last year celebrated their 30-year anniversary, an impressive milestone for a Sino-foreign joint venture.
What is possibly the most outstanding example of a modest-yet-effective centerline is the life story of Warren Buffett. Despite having a net worth of over US$60 billion, he still spends the majority of his time working not in a New York City tower, but an average-looking office building in Omaha, Nebraska.
The house he lives in is the same five-bedroom home he purchased for his family 49 years ago, comfortable yet unremarkable. The home now has a value of roughly $600,000, about .001 percent of Buffett’s total net worth.
He has accumulated his vast fortune not by chasing trends, financial gimmicks, or PR manipulation, but by a consistent, principled approach: investing in well-run companies at fair prices, keeping their management in place, and letting the power of compound interest do its work.
While never making the grandiose claims of “making the world a better place” the way that the big names of Silicon Valley do, Buffett undoubtedly has done so, as he has pledged to give away the bulk of his fortune to charitable causes.
Even though many have questioned his low-profile lifestyle choices, Buffett is not playing a game dictated by the judgments, but rather by his internal compass, his centerline, or as he calls it, an “internal scorecard”.
“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard,” Buffet has famously said. “It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard.”
Many people admire Buffett for his fortune and covet Apple products as indicators of high status, but many are not mindful of the principled focus that brought about that success, the movements revolving around a centerline of purpose, that their success is a result of a kind of business and personal Wing Chun.
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