In the early 15th century one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled set sail from the east coast of China, close to modern day Shanghai.

Made up of more than 300 ships carrying almost 28,000 crew, and armed with cannon and other weaponry, the giant armada set sail not to make war or build empire but to showcase to the outside world the splendour and glory of Ming China.

Laden with the finest produce from across imperial China, the fleet was led by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from landlocked southwestern China with no previous naval experience. As well as commanding these epic voyages, Zheng He also took on the role of trader, diplomat and cultural envoy.

In my research as a professor at NUS Business School I have been intrigued by the many lessons the story of Zheng He offers in leadership, management and logistics. Encompassing all of these is a mind-set of service excellence that remains relevant to business today.

Zheng He deployed strategic demonstrations of goodwill and generosity, focusing on mutually beneficial outcomes to build friendly, sustainable relationships with trading states across Asia

Following an imperial decree to spread China’s knowledge and goodwill, Zheng He undertook seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433, sailing as far west as the Horn of Africa. Using only the power of the wind and navigating by the stars, coordinating such a massive fleet would challenge even today’s most experienced naval commanders.

Zheng He’s voyages were not without their detractors, primarily political rivals or those who viewed his expeditions as a waste of recourses and an unnecessary distraction. Indeed, in 1473 one senior Ming official, Liu Daxia, ordered the burning of court documents and records related to the fleet’s travels.

However, some original records survive, among them accounts by translators and officers who travelled with the fleet. We are also fortunate to have a growing number of English and especially Chinese language studies of Zheng He’s voyages. Together these provide deep insights into the man and his philosophy and formed the basis for my book Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration, which examines his story from a management perspective.

Strategic goodwill

Operating at the high point of the Ming Empire’s prosperity and strength, Zheng He deployed strategic demonstrations of goodwill and generosity, focusing on mutually beneficial outcomes to build friendly, sustainable relationships with trading states across Asia.

For example, accounts such as those by Ma Huan, a translator who accompanied three of Zheng He’s voyages, recall that at each port he visited, he introduced himself and his fleet to local leaders with gifts such as gold, porcelain, silk and other precious items made by the finest Chinese craftsmen. He would even direct his fleet’s medics, many of whom came from the Emperor’s own staff, to help treat locals who were unwell.

By clearly communicating his intentions through generous words and actions, Zheng He was able to build relationships of trust and goodwill. His objective, he would tell local leaders, was that “tianxia” – or all under heaven – would progress and prosper together and enjoy the fruits of peaceful times.

Acts of collaboration

Zheng He’s collaborative approach contrasts with the frequently-quoted and more adversarial “Art of War” philosophy advocated by Sun Zi, a military strategist who lived about 1,000 years before Zheng He.

Breaking down Zheng He’s strategy for my book, I extracted five Acts of Collaboration which epitomise his approach towards building mutually beneficial relations. These are:

  • Articulating intent
  • Practising generosity
  • Building win-win
  • Ensuring sustainability
  • Cultivating trust

By following these acts in his various encounters, Zheng He was able to build rapport with local rulers and demonstrate the benefits of an enduring win-win relationship.

His approach has clear lessons for leaders today looking to deliver service excellence. The first step is to always be clear, open and specific about your intent, backing this up with displays of generosity – either in material form or otherwise – with no expectation of anything in return.

Practicing and repeating this generous approach toward both staff and customers in turn lays the ground for reciprocity and a mutually-beneficial relationship where all sides can profit and grow.

The staff becomes generously helpful toward customers who through word of mouth adds to the firm’s positive reputation. Finally a conscious effort must be made to carefully cultivate and maintain the relationships to ensure that they last and all sides deepen their trust in each other.

One illustration of this was Zheng He’s insistence on paying a fair price for the goods his fleet purchased. For example, Fei Xin, an officer whose account of one of Zheng He’s voyages was first published in 1436, recounts how on a visit to Siam (modern Thailand) the crew discovered a source of mahogany trees – an important hardwood for shipbuilding, especially rudders. Rather than simply taking advantage of this resource, he paid the local leaders in gold for the wood they needed, earning his fleet a reputation as a credible and trustworthy trading partner.

Other records note a similar tale when the crew discovered sulphur, an important medical ingredient, in the volcanoes of Sumatra.

Likewise historians have also documented several episodes during the course of his seven voyages when Zheng He intervened to solve local disputes or used his military to defend the states he visited against attacks pirates and other hostile powers. This also built trust and confidence in Zheng and his mission, forming the foundation for a lasting, collaborative relationship.

And on each of his imperial voyages, Zheng He would support his crew to do trades with the locals, so that his staff as much as his entire imperial enterprise would benefit from the win-win collaborative relationships cultivated.

Growing the pie

In the deeply inter-connected world of modern business, successful collaborative relationships are essential. Building and maintaining this, depends to a high degree on providing excellent service.

Zheng He’s philosophy, at its heart, is about approaching business relationships as an opportunity to grow the pie, rather than taking an adversarial approach to expand your particular slice at the expense of someone else.

In other words, by building a collaborative relationship and working together to expand the pie, even if your share remains proportionately the same, you are still growing in absolute terms – a positive rather than zero-sum result.

Following Zheng He’s example, here are five steps service leaders can take to build a collaborative service relationship:

  • Embrace and articulate a collaborative mindset. This means seeking out potential collaborators, sharing the value of working together and entrenching this within your organisation.
  • Learn to be more generous, manage goodwill and build your organisation’s capacity to share from a position of strength.
  • Seek ways to grow the business pie so that everyone benefits.
  • Manage external risks and threats to keep the relationship sustainable. For example, keeping alert for disruptive technologies and game-changing new business models, with feedback from both staff and customers.
  • Find ways and means to connect and deepen trust with others, building your reputation of reliability and dependability through service excellence.