Master Han Fei’s Wisdom

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Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And, like many other sages, his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own municipal council.

Han Fei Tzu (aka Han Feizi) was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school that challenged many of the Confucian notions of government. In his short life he wrote 55 books – really short essays we would call chapters today.

This week, I pulled out my tattered copy of Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964) for another read. I hadn’t read Master Han Fei for quite a while, and, as I often am when reading the classics, I was somewhat fascinated at the relevance today of these ancient words. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of the books was called The Ten Faults, and here I reproduce the list of faults identified by Han Fei (as per Watson’s translation):

  • To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  • To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  • To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  • To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  • To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  • To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  • To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  • To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  • To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  • To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… and it’s almost scary how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my analysis of how Han Fei’s words relate to Collingwood.

1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty.
Council’s larger loyalty lies not with the handful of people who helped it get elected, but to the community at large. To be loyal to a special interest group or a coterie of supporters at the expense of the community’s needs will lose the support of the community.

A petty loyalty is also a personal agenda. Sure, most politicians come with them, but the wise ones – at least those who wish to be re-elected – drop them once elected and start pursuing goals that benefit the greater good. Unfortunately, council, 16 months since taking office, still operates through the lens of pettiness, entitlement and private agendas. That’s the betrayal of the larger loyalty.

2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one.
Scoring short-term gains such as remaking the Code of Conduct solely to look righteous, flaunting a hokey “strategic plan” that was merely a wish list, or budget decisions to appease staff demands with money when taxpayers are hurting, loses the larger victory: doing the best for the community.

These tactics have also segmented council into a large self-entitlement group versus a smaller best-for-the-community contingent.

There is much more to be gained from creating a cohesive, cooperative, consensual council respected by the greater community. The short term advantage may be easier to accomplish than the larger, especially when such an uncritical, ideological block vote grants sure success of every motion, but it places the larger gain much further away, if not entirely unreachable.

Greater goals require consensus. The previous council was accused of “block voting” – a term cast in unfavourable light in the last election campaign although it really meant we had a general consensus on goals and objectives. Yet once in power, the accusers quickly cemented in place an ideological Block that is now the target of community opprobrium.

To avoid factions, one has to avoid chasing petty and selfish gains. Politicians should concentrate on the greater good of the community, not their own welfare or agendas. Sometimes that means staying with the status quo, at least initially.

In Robert Greene’s superb book 48 Laws of Power, Law 45 law states,

“Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once… too much innovation is traumatic and will lead to revolt.”

Sudden change is rarely the result of consensus; more often it is the result of applied force. Bullying if you will. Or Block voting. It might bring about a short-term ideological gain, but the long-term result will work against you because the community only gets angrier each time.

Machiavelli also said,

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.”

3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall.
Change feudal lords to staff, other councillors or the mayor and this line makes itself clear: to act in an autocratic and self-serving manner, to dictate rather than lead, to ignore or show discourtesy to staff and disrespect for the office of the mayor will create a sullen, rebellious opposition which will hinder, not work towards your goals.

This applies equally to the administration as it does to council. Bullying staff never works in your favour. Lead by example, by guidance, by support and you will have a team, not an unhappy, unwilling and demoralized workforce.

Staff are not servants. They deserve respect. They should be asked for advice or comment, not dictated to. And they should never be micromanaged by anyone on council.

4. To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress.
Change that to the sound of sycophants, or yes men, and it works nicely. But that music may be the siren song of out-of-town consultants or lawyers. or even the honeyed words of the CAO. Remember what the sirens’ song did to Ulysses

Outsiders who praise you with lavish attention don’t do it for altruistic reasons. They are after something more tangible than just to bask in your presence; usually position, attention, or money. Meanwhile, those at the table who speak critically and thoughtfully could offer better and more sound advice with few if any strings attached, since they have already gained the seat of power.

Your “friends” may be as ephemeral as your Facebook “friends.” In his book, Greene’s second law is a chapter titled, “Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies.” In it he writes,

“Be wary of friends – they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.”

Thinking of how this council has bestowed board and committee appointments on often ill-suited or inappropriate supporters, I quote French King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who commented,

“Every time I bestow a vacant office, I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”

Machiavelli, the master of political enlightenment, wrote,

“Princes, and especially new ones, have found more faith and more usefulness in those men whom, at the beginning of their power they regarded with suspicion, than in those they at first confided in.”

5. To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise.
It’s not just about profit – since municipalities aren’t supposed to make any – but rather about money management itself. Keeping costs down, reining in expenses, keeping taxes low, not spending casually. Parsimony.

That includes not giving yourself an automatic raise when you’re also raising taxes (done twice by this council). Or granting a councillor thousands of dollars to fly around the country and wine and dine at taxpayer expense, with no benefit to the town.

People often focus on projects that can give them a legacy – and possibly collateral results like jobs or commissions – instead of providing the best, most effective solution for the community. These are the glittering “Taj Mahal” projects that often get attention instead of more affordable, more pragmatic solutions. For example, building a $35 million recreation centre and handing it over to the YMCA was a Taj Mahal project. And entirely unaffordable, so it was rejected. Building new rec facilities using existing resources at no cost to the taxpayer solved the problems last term without needing an ego-boosting Taj Mahal.

When a council holds the budget reins too tightly and refuses to grant small favours to the many impoverished yet deserving community groups who request minimal support, it loses the support of a larger group of people. What did this council gain by withholding funds from the Jazz at the Station event last year, except for bad public relations? The event’s supporters would have repaid council with affection and respect, instead of the grumbling anger and dissent it received.

6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction.
Women musicians provided the aesthetic and cultural background to the Chinese court, but in themselves wielded no power or control. Today it might be the glitter of the office, or the title and attention that comes with moving in higher political circles. It might be the attraction of a position with a larger authority – AMO, FCM. It might be the self-satisfaction of being asked to attend functions in some official role where you become the focus of attention. Getting your name and picture into the paper. Or even just to be recognized by a stranger as part of the council.

Politicians all have some ego invested in their role, but they must beware of treating the glitter as the metal itself. They are there to serve, not to marvel at the brightness of their own reflections.

Watching council meetings online, I marvel at how few members actually speak about anything substantial, or engage in actual, open debate – let alone advocate or champion any community issue. Still too wrapped up, I suppose, in pondering their own election success, gazing into their own virtual mirrors.

7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself.
That strikes me as warning not to leave local affairs in the hands of others – such as itinerant interim CAOs or consultants – and not to spend too much time focusing on issues outside your own border or jurisdiction like the FCM.

Ministers might be staff, or might be other members of council. Or perhaps distance suggests chasing ideological goals while the day-to-day stuff of governance is overlooked. Too much forest, not enough trees in your “strategic plan”?

In another section (the book titled The Two Handles), Han Fei writes,

“Government reaches to the four quarters, but its source is in the centre… Things have their proper place, talents their proper use… If the ruler tries to excel, then nothing will go right… He establishes the standard, abides by it, and lets all things settle themselves.”

By which I read that the mayor’s behaviour and actions should be the standard for the rest of council. Not the deputy mayor’s, not the councillor with the most votes, or the loudest voice, or the blustery one who threatens to “punch people out.”

When council ignores the mayor and sets their personal moral compasses by the examples set by one who does not abide by the Code of Conduct, the result is further fragmentation at the table and more acrimony.

8. To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others.
The loyal ministers might be either staff or the rest of council, or perhaps they would be loyal if treated with respect and dignity. Either way, listen to the opposition, pay heed to the other side of the argument and heed staff before you dance to the tune of outsiders.

Problem for this council is that the Block formulates far too many of its goals and plans in secret, among its elitist group, without engaging the rest. Motions get presented without even the courtesy of a notice to either the public or fellow councillors.

And Han Fei is clearly saying that when you are at fault, you cannot continue in that direction except at the risk of your reputation.

Reputation is also Law 5, a chapter Greene’s work: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It With Your Life. He says,

“Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable.”

Currently the reputation of the town is at an all-time low, thanks to aggressive anti-business, anti-neighbour, anti-developer practices and statements by council. And thus tumbles the collective reputation of council.

Sometimes you have to stop trying to get your own way and act for the greater good, not your own entitlement. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”

In his book Wielding Power, Han Fei writes something that I feel relates to this council’s unrelenting assaults on our community utility, Collus/Powerstream:

“In ferreting out evil within the palace and controlling it outside you, you yourself must hold fast to your standards and measurements.”

Standards such as those set out in the Code of Conduct. Or the Municipal Act. Or any reasonable standards of ethical behaviour. But the vendetta against Collus continues while the reputation of council and the administration sinks lower among townsfolk and staff.

Of course, the “evil with the palace” isn’t in Collus at all. It’s in town hall.

9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment.
I see the internal strength as council and staff, and the allies abroad as the special interest groups or supporters outside the council, but who hover around in close proximity.

Outsiders may advise, but they do not govern. When you give them more attention, respect and listen to them more closely than you listen to the elected members of council or your own staff, pretty soon you have a revolt: low morale drives factionalism and opposition.

The ‘allies abroad’ can sometimes want more than they have: power, authority, control. And since you are perceived as their ally – or puppet, depending on circumstances – they demand you arrange for them to get more. You might recall that the special interest group, VOTE, tried to control the town a couple of terms back, aided and abetted by several at the table. And it might have succeeded, if it had had among its members the wit and talents requisite for such an effort.

In the book, Facing South, Han Fei writes,

“This is where rulers go wrong: having assigned certain ministers to office, they then try to use unassigned men to check the power of the assigned. They justify this policy by claiming that the interests of the assigned and the unassigned will be mutually inimical, but in fact the rulers find themselves falling under the power of the unassigned.”

The unassigned might be seen as the numerous out-of-town consultants and lawyers hired by this council to provide advice and direction (far easier, of course, than actually thinking for oneself). They set a lot of council’s policies and practices by pretending to be looking out for the town’s interests, but in reality are just about the money.

10. To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.
Civility, respect, courtesy, compromise, compassion – these are things that can bind a person to a leader better and more strongly than force, power, fear or anger. And it’s not just in the leader that these are necessary: for a council to operate as a group, not merely nine individuals, everyone has to practice them. Others at the table have to stop jockeying for power and going around behind the back of the mayor to get some small, personal advantage.

Ignoring proper process, being secretive, conspiring in small groups – these are a show of distrust and disrespect not only to the mayor, but to the entire electorate.They generate ill will, suspicion and anger both at the table and in the community. The head of council’s role is to create consensus and find compromise, but it is hard to achieve when others at the table actively sow discord, disrespect and distrust.

Democracy is a living process, not a zero-sum game. It works best when it is civil, and not at all when a large portion of the elected representatives engage in secretive practices.

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