When, in the year 1422, the great Chinese Admiral, Zheng He, returns from his sixth expedition, he doesn't know of the news waiting for him upon his arrival. So far, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Yongle Emperor, had financed his expeditions to promote Chinese trade in areas ranging from Indonesia, India, and Eastern Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. To put the might of China at the time in perspective, Zheng He’s ships dwarfed those of Columbus half a century later: his fleet counted hundreds of ships; his “treasure ships” were four times as large.
Once in Nanjing, his naval base, Zheng He learns that the funding for his expeditions had been reallocated by the emperor to finance his campaigns against the Mongols. On his third campaign, the Yongle Emperor meets his death and, in 1424, his eldest son, Zhu Gaochi, is declared the Hongxi Emperor (fourth in the Ming Dynasty). During his short, one-year-long reign, Zhu Gaochi not only cancels Zheng He’s expeditions but, famously, also reinstates a government of Confusion scholar-bureaucrats that is more focused on the well-being of the people and less on the world outside.
When the son of Zhu Goachi takes over as the Xuande Emperor after his father’s early death, he continues his father’s liberal policies. The Xuande Emperor allows Zheng He one more expedition, his seventh, but, in the end, orders his ships either to be burnt or anchored for good, inevitably turning China inward again.
The Belt and Road Initiative (routes over land and sea), introduced in 2013 by China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, clearly resonates with the history of China some six hundred years ago. Xi’s remarkable initiative was introduced as “a bid to enhance regional connectivity” and “to construct a unified large market.” This highly ambitious project, which reaches into sixty-eight countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe, involves massive infrastructure and investment projects with China as main lender and facilitator.
My comparison of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Yongle Emperor’s trade expeditions is not meant to judge in any way their motivation, intent, or ways. Rather, my purpose is to illustrate that leaders naturally converge on solutions that are most opportune to the developmental stage of their nation, no matter the era they govern. In fact, as I argue in Cyclic Agility and Late on Time, “ensembles of people”, no matter whether they shape societies, nations, or companies, all develop in similar stages. These stages emerge on the back of a waxing and waning division of labor and the waxing and waning entanglement of behaviors that this entices.
So, driven by outside conditions, the state of the nation determined the kind of solutions that Xi Jinping and the Yongle Emperor chose to benefit their nation.
As the above diagram shows, each stage of national development has its own challenge (confront/purify, explore/discover, etc.) as well as a typical growth rate. The resolution of each challenge invites a leader to take on a certain role, which then determines the nation’s (inward or outward) perspective.
Because nations and organizations cycle through these stages time and again, the cycle itself represents the face of the clock of self-organization.
Building on this stage-specific insight, I listed the successive leaders of the People’s Republic of China and their leadership role in the diagram below—China’s GDP curve neatly matching the growth rate during each stage, as can be expected.
As reformer, Mao confronts and purifies a fragmented nation while having to undo foreign interference (outward perspective). As reformer, in a subsequent era, Xi Jinping also faces the need to confront and purify. At the same time, he instills an outward view through his Belt and Road Initiative not unlike the Yongle Emperor did through Zheng He’s trade expeditions.
Yet, the clock of self-organization continues ticking, as it always does.
After Mao, Deng assumes the role of transformer helping his nation look at itself (inward perspective) to explore and discover the socio-economic premises that would make the Chinese economy thrive.
Similarly, another leader can be expected to arise after Xi Jinping, a leader that will assume a transformer-type role and foster an inward perspective not unlike the Hongxi Emperor and his son did six hundred years ago.
The question is when.
Mao’s successors (Deng, Jiang, and Hu) each served their nation for about a decade. Mao, as reformer and founder of the nation, took much longer. Xi Jinping, as reformer, can be expected to have a longer reign too but, in an established nation, not as long as Mao’s. So far, Xi Jinping (aged 66) has served as China’s leader for less than a decade. If his health permits, he can be expected to rule for another decade or so. Then again, put off by the acceleration of technological change, he might call it quits sooner.
As the stages on the clock of self-organization tick away, the role, strengths, and pitfalls of leaders change predictably, as I explain here. To illustrate how this applies to China, I show below the successors of Mao in what can be called the “matrix of progressive leadership characteristics”.