The Little Prince


For years, I have liked the following quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

I have seen similar verses from other sources. Its origin matters little to me. Its essence is inspiring for anyone who wishes to be a leader professionally or personally, in a small or large context. A strong desire for achievement is certainly not enough for great accomplishment, but without that inner drive and vision, very little could be realised even for a very talented person. A couple of months ago, I quoted this to Terry in a discussion. That lead me to dig out Saint-Exupéry’s books and read them. Here comes this blog entry of The Little Prince.

Some would say this is a children book. I think this is true, as children would enjoy reading it. In my opinion, adult readers would find it brutally honest and alarming upon a little self-reflection. Read the little Prince’s thought about the lamplighter here and see what you think:

Now that man, the little prince said to himself as he continued on his journey, that man would be despised by all the others, by the king, by the very vain man, by the drunkard, by the businessman. Yet he’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as ridiculous. Perhaps it’s because he’s thinking of something besides himself.

Ah, for you to appreciate the passage above, I should first introduce you to these characters:

The king is an hilariously ineffective king of a kingdom with no residents other than himself. He takes great pride in being reasonable though.

The very vain man demands admiration from any visitor to his planet. He likes to regard himself as the most handsome, the best-dressed, the richest and the most intelligent man on the planet with one resident, just himself.

The drunkard drinks to forget that he is ashamed of excessive drinking. Very sad indeed, but do not we all know one or two examples in real world who somewhat resemble the drunkard?

The businessman is obsessed about counting stars as a form of wealth, and believes that he is concerned with matters of consequence.

When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before anyone else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.

The lamplighter earns some respect from the prince, as the little prince said to himself:

It’s quite possible that this man is absurd. But he’s less absurd than the king, the very vain man, the businessman, and the drunkard. At least his work has some meaning. When he lights his lamp, it’s as if he’s bringing one more star to life, or one more flower. When he puts out his lamp, that sends the flower or the star to sleep. Which is a fine occupation. And therefore truly useful.

The geographer, who lives on the sixth planet visited by the little prince, does not know whether there are oceans, mountains, cities, rivers or deserts on his planet, because he is not an explorer. As a geographer, he does not go out to describe those. He is far too important to go wandering about. He never leaves his study. He receives the explorers there and questions them and writes down what they remember. Unfortunately, there is not one explorer on his planet. Is this the sadness of specialisation and inflexibility? Are we heading there as a society in general?

The geographer is not totally unhelpful towards the prince though. He indeed recommends the prince to visit the planet Earth. Whenever I write or speak or hear the phrase “the planet Earth”, I hear the voice of David Attenborough. How fascinating! The Earth is the saddest of all. It has one hundred and eleven kings, seven thousand geographers, nine hundred thousand businessman, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million vain men. In total, that is about two billion grow-ups. I got goosebumps when I read this bit of description of the planet Earth. How utterly hopeless we are! My new allergy is the phrase “grow-ups”. Even the mighty Claritin-D cannot help with this allergy.  

Whether scientific or not, Saint-Exupéry shared with us some more wisdom in the chapters about the prince’s visit to the planet Earth, his final stop:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

What I’m looking at is only a shell. What’s most important is invisible.

You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.

No one is ever satisfied where he is. (The railway switchman commented about the travellers.)

What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere.

People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they do not find what they are looking for…They do not find it. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water….But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.

Please do not call me a grow-up. I do not wish to be one, absolutely not one as portrayed in The Little Prince.

The Effective Executive

I read a good number of Peter F. Drucker’s works as a postgraduate student. During the last few years, I browsed some passages on and off as the need arose. Last month, I was traveling and had the good fortune to have the company of his The Effective Executive during my Eurostar rides. Coincidentally, I met some extraordinarily smart quantum physicists and recommended Drucker’s writings to them. Deep down, I wish I could summarize all his works, but feel frustrated and powerless that I cannot possibly do Drucker the justice, hence I have to resort to suggesting that people read his writings.

The Effective Executive was first published in 1966. It advises on how to manage oneself for effectiveness. To me, it is one of the very best of his dozens of books. In his own words:

it is both a concise blueprint for effectiveness as an executive within an organization and a practical guide to managing oneself for performance and achievement, whether within an organization or on one’s own. It is equally the best introduction for the nonmanager – whether student or layman – to management and organizations.

Drucker argues that being intelligent or working hard or being knowledgeable is not sufficient for an individual to be reasonably effective, also to be effective does not require any special gifts or training. To be effective is to consistently follow a set of practices. This book prescribes these practices. He states that only effectiveness can convert the essential resources such as intelligence, imagination and knowledge into results. The traditional yardsticks used for manual work are not applicable to knowledge work. A knowledge worker needs a different kind of management and leadership, not to be supervised closely, instead to be helped. As a knowledge worker, one must direct oneself towards performance and contribution.

I like Drucker’s definition of an executive:

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of an organization to perform and to obtain results. This may be the capacity of a business to bring out a new product or to obtain a larger share of a given market. It may be the capacity of a hospital to provide bedside care to its patients, and so on. Such a man must make decisions; he cannot just carry out orders. He must take responsibility for his contribution. And he is supposed, by virtue of his knowledge, to be better equipped to make the right decision than anyone else. He may be overridden; he may be demoted or fired. But so long as he has the job, the goals, the standards, and the contribution are in his keeping.   

Entering the industry, as I started to build and lead a team in a company, I appreciated more of what I learned from Drucker. It is one of the sources that guides me to a firm belief that as a leader, the responsibility is always mine. To be a good leader requires far more than technical expertise and intelligence. In my view, partially thanks to Silicon Valley, the individual contributors are valued more than in the past when the management ladder was the only way for career progress. At the same time, I wonder whether we have neglected leadership development in the tech industry under the disguise of needing more technical experts tackling specific problem sets. Many brilliant engineers are very settled down thinking that, as life is wonderful enough as an individual contributor, why bother taking up the work coordinating and leading efforts of multiple people, let alone sometimes having to deal with tough conversations with difficult employees. I respect people with this view, but disagree profoundly. The Effective Executive broadly addresses any knowledge worker who is responsible for actions and decisions to contribute to the performance capacity of the wide organization. So you may find a sentence or two beneficial to your thinking, regardless of whether you view yourself as an executive or one who never wants to be.

Below I summarize the book with selected passages below to show what Drucker prescribed for learning to be effective.

Effectiveness is not a subject, but a self-discipline. Throughout this book, and implicit in its structure and in the way it treats its subject matter, is always the question: “What makes for effectiveness in an organization and in any of the major areas of an executive’s day and work?” Only rarely is the question asked: “Why should there be effectiveness?” The goal of effectiveness is taken for granted…..Effectiveness reveals itself as crucial to a man’s self-development; to organisation development; and to the fulfillment and viability of modern society.

  1. The first step toward effectiveness is a procedure: recording where the time goes.
  2. The next step in which the executive is asked to focus his vision on contribution advances from the procedural to the conceptual, from mechanics to analysis, and from efficiencies to concern with results. In this step the executive disciplines himself to think through the reason why he is on the payroll and the contribution he ought to make….In focusing himself and his vision on contribution the executive has to think through purpose and ends rather than means alone.
  3. Making strengths productive is fundamentally an attitude expressed in behavior. It is fundamentally respect for the person – one’s own as well as others. It is a value system in action. But it is again “learning through doing” and self-development through practice. In making strengths productive, the executive integrates individual purpose and organization needs, individual capacity and organization results, individual achievement and organization opportunity.
  4. First thing first. It is an antiphon to Know Thy Time at the first step. The procedure here no longer deals with a resource, time, but with the end product, the performance of organisation and executive. What is being recorded and analyzed is no longer what happens to us but what we should try to make happen in the environment around us. And what is being developed here is not information, but character: foresight, self-reliance, courage. What is being developed here, in other words, is leadership – not the leadership of brilliance and genius, to be sure, but the much more modest yet more enduring leadership of dedication, determination, and serious purpose.
  5. The effective decision does not, as so many texts on decision making proclaim, flow from a consensus on the facts. The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives.

As conflict is one of my favorite subjects, I shall indulge myself with a bit more quotes from the book here:

Disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination. In all matters of true uncertainty such as the executive deals with – whether his sphere is political, economic, social, or military – one needs “creative” solutions which create a new situation. And this means that one needs imagination – a new and different way of perceiving and understanding.

Imagination of the first order is, I admit, not in abundant supply. But neither is it as scarce as is commonly believed. Imagination needs to be challenged and stimulated, however, or else it remains latent and unused. Disagreement, especially if forced to be reasoned, thought through, documented, is the most effective stimulus we know.

Disagreement converts the plausible into the right, the right into the good decision.

Effective executive starts out with the commitment to find out why people disagree. Effective executives know, of course, that there are fools around and that there are mischief-makers. But they do not assume that the man who disagrees with what they themselves see as clear and obvious is, therefore, either a fool or a knave. They know that unless proven otherwise, the dissenter has to be assumed to be reasonably intelligent and reasonably fair-minded. Therefore, it has to be assumed that he has reached his so obviously wrong conclusion because he sees a different reality and is concerned with a different problem. The effective executive, therefore, always asks: ”What does this fellow have to see if his position were, after all, tenable, rational, intelligent?” The effective executive is concerned first with understanding. Only then does he even think about who is right and who is wrong.

A Traveller

This is a post-travel rant, not a book summary.

A UK border agent half raised his hand, signaling me to come forward. I walked up and handed over my passport, said hello meanwhile. We exchanged a couple short sentences. The agent is English, mumbling, in his cubicle protected by safety glass. At times, it was hard to hear what he said and impossible to read his lips as they barely moved. I asked him to repeat one question. He was not pleased.

Was I intimidated or angered by him? No, he did not act violently verbally or physically, and I can imagine that he might be a very pleasant English gentleman outside his border agency job. But was I made to feel small in any way? A little. The attitude, the look in his eyes, unpleasantly judgmental and stone cold as if he was questioning me: why on earth are you bothering me with your entry to my country? What the hell are you going to do in my country? A less experienced or more sensitive soul than mine might have cried his/her eyes out and sworn never to leave the home country again. There was this invisible boundary drawn up right there between me and him, or between me and his England. Is it his England? Is it not partially my England too?

This encounter was not atypically bad at all. It is among the common ones entering many countries in my numerous international trips. To me, it would not have left a particular mark on my psyche, if Britain, more specifically England, is not one of the countries that forms my identity.

I am identified as Chinese by non-Chinese, mostly as British or recently maybe American by Chinese. My work style could be identified as very much influenced by the English, German and Dutch. My stomach is mostly Italian and British. My close friends are from all over the world.

Who am I really? I do not know the answer nor do I care. All I care is to better oneself with the good values and practices from people of each race, each culture and each nation, be good to people no matter who they are, cleaners or CEOs, boss or subordinate, homosexual or not. We belittle ourselves if we are not fair and just towards others equally.

If there is one last piece bread left on the earth and it is in my possession, I would share with you, whether you are identified as English, German, Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Sri-Lankan, Indian, Portuguese, or whatever; as Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, atheist or others; as black, white, Asian or all else; for each of you is a wonderful and unique human being. I am grateful to people from all these diverse backgrounds for inspiring me through who they are.

A side note: one occasion in San Francisco Airport, a security staff was repeatedly, very aggressively shouting towards a few travelers who clearly did not understand English. In my view, she mistreated those fellow travelers and I wanted to speak with her after exiting from the security check, but did not find her. Not giving up, I went to another security guy who seemed to be supervising the operation in that area and complained about this behavior. Just imagine, you are traveling in a foreign country that you do not know the language and a security guard is yelling towards you repeatedly. Some guards are even fully armed. Would you know any better what to do when the guard has yelled one more time? Put some clear signs up or have posters in various languages handy to show to people. Your throat will not hurt. Your job will be more enjoyable. I, a traveler, will not interfere, I promise.