In 1405 one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled set sail from the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou.

Made up of more than 300 vessels carrying 27,000 crew, it was to be the first of seven epic voyages, spanning barely three decades, as imperial China briefly reached out to the rest of the world.

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Part 1: Explorer and Manager
Part 2: Admiral and Leader
Part 3: Supply Chain Pioneer
Special section: Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration

Under orders from the emperor, the expeditions were intended to assert the wealth and power of the middle kingdom, spread Chinese culture, and build peaceful, friendly ties with trading states through maritime Asia and beyond, as far as the coast of modern day Somalia.

At the heart of the fleet were the bao chuan, or treasure ships – vessels, according to some records, many times larger than anything previously built. They carried in their holds the best produce early Ming Dynasty China had to offer, a statement of China’s advanced standing to communinities the fleet encountered along the way.

The voyages, says NUS Business School professor Hum Sin Hoon, were the early trailblazer of China’s open-door policy.

For a relatively brief period in the early 15th century, China connected itself to the rest of the world, exporting the finest silks and ceramics and bringing in unimagined exotica from the rest of the world – among them a family of giraffes who were housed in the imperial palace.

Viewed together, says Professor Hum, the seven massive voyages built up a what he calls a “floating supply chain” connecting imperial China with ports and trading posts spanning the full breadth of Asia; from China to India and the Persian Gulf, and reaching as far as the east coast of Africa.

In command of the massive fleet was Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch with no previous naval experience who had grown up far from the sea and had little in the way of diplomatic background.

How did such a man build, lead and manage the logistics of this vast fleet on seven voyages across tens of thousands of kilometres of ocean?

Leadership and management

giraffe280Zheng He bought back many things to China that had never been seen beforeIt was a question that caught the attention of Professor Hum, a specialist in logistics and global supply chains, as he set out to learn the leadership and management lessons of this fifteenth century admiral.

The result is his book: Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration, Understanding the Legendary Chinese Admiral from a Management Perspective.

The title is designed specifically to contrast Zheng He’s leadership style against that of another Chinese historical figure, military strategist Sun Zi, famous for his work The Art of War – a book that has become a frequently-cited business text.

Pouring over the literature on Zheng He – also known as Cheng Ho – as well as the few fragments the admiral is known to have written himself, Professor Hum has drawn out several lessons he says demonstrate the admiral’s win-win management approach – as a commander, diplomat, cultural envoy and trader – that are especially relevant to today’s globalised business world.

“As a logistics supply chain professor, I asked the questions, how did he feed his people? How did he move his people? How did he replenish the supplies? Where did he get his stock, food, water – even if he stopped along the way how can he be sure that those materials are available in places that he had no access to and no familiarity with?”

map555Zheng He’s voyages took him as far as the east coast of Africa

Zheng He’s expeditions took place almost a century before other, perhaps more well-known explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.

He commanded a fleet and crew far larger than any of them, and yet, says Professor Hum, Zheng He’s name and reputation is not known well enough. Columbus, for example, took just three small ships and less than 300 crew on his voyage that discovered the Americas.

Imperial advisor

Originating from the landlocked province of Yunnan in China’s southwest, Zheng He rose through the ranks of the imperial court, becoming the emperor’s most trusted advisor and military commander.

On each of his seven voyages, he carried with him an imperial decree setting out the collaborative objectives of the missions.

Professor Hum says the decree formed the basis for Zheng He’s approach to collaboration – a strategy he breaks down into what he calls the four Cs:

  • Capacity Building – of both human capital and technological capital.
  • Coordination – of the massive fleet and crew
  • Communication – both among his fleet, and with the local trading states encountered on his voyages
  • And Continuity – aimed at building long-term and sustainable relationships

It’s a strategy Professor Hum says is applied extensively in the modern business world, even if contemporary practitioners aren’t directly aware of it.

He points to the collaborative spirit embodied in web 2.0 culture that has emerged in the internet world over the past decade, as a prime example of Zheng He’s philosophy in action today.

Powerful idea

Zheng He’s central message, Professor Hum says, is collaboration based on goodwill – coming not from a position of weakness, but a position of strength.

ship280Of the four Cs, communication is the most important element of Zheng He’s model of collaboration, beginning with clearly and transparently articulating your intent as the foundation for building a succesful partnership.

In adddition, Zheng He’s strategy advocates practising generosity as a further way to strengthen collaboration, and a focus on building win-win outcomes so that all parties benefit. Succesful collaborators also need to aim for building sustainable relationships, quickly addressing any issues in their control that may damage the relationships they are building.

And finally, professor Hum says, parties involved must also constantly work to cultivate trust – a key factor underpinning all relationships – acting with integrity and backing up their words with actions.

“Zheng He’s collaborative paradigm is: ‘I have this; I have all these capabilities. I’m coming to you to share this with you, to show you what I have. And then in the process as I win your trust we could end up doing something together.'”

The notion of collaboration from a position of strength is, he says, “a very powerful idea.”

“It’s not collaboration to enable me to win, to enable me to benefit. Not even simply to enable me and you – win-win – to benefit.”

“The benefits involve a matter of peace and goodwill for everyone. So that is a major lesson for today’s world, how to build that collaboration, that is good will, that is peace-based and sustainable.”