Leadership Wisdom of the I-Ching

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CUHK expert shares insights on the management wisdom of I-Ching and how to apply this ancient Chinese divination book in the modern business environment

For decades, management gurus and scholars worldwide have sought to mine the wisdom of the ancient Chinese to glean insights that could help to improve modern business practices. For instance, the ancient Chinese military treatise The Art of War by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu has been adapted into countless business strategies and taught at numerous business schools.

The same goes for I-Ching, also known as the “Book of Changes”. The I-Ching is an ancient Chinese divination manual and book of wisdom that seeks to help its readers gain insights about the future. The ancient book supposedly details every possible change that a person can undergo in their lifespan. The idea is that people should be able to make the best decisions at that moment for future events after fully understanding the patterns and cycles of change. For more than 5,000 years, I-Ching has been used by people in decision-making and predicting the future.

The I-Ching has served for thousands of years as a grimoire of the wisdom of the universe.

Prof. Leo Sin Yat-ming

Leo Sin Yat-ming, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, recently shared his insights on I-Ching and leadership in a Master Class for the school’s EMBA programme. He pointed out that a element for being an effective modern business leader is the wisdom to correctly diagnose the situation, and apply the right knowledge at the right time to solve a problem or make the right decision.

“The I-Ching has served for thousands of years as a grimoire of the wisdom of the universe, a guide to ethical life and a manual for rulers,” Prof. Sin says. “A wise leader, however, should be able to apply knowledge appropriately, sense what lies behind a situation, and find a way out of a dilemma. The I-Ching can be especially helpful in answering problems managers encounter in this era of uncertainty.”

Hexagrams and Business Management

I-Ching uses 64 hexagrams to convey ancient wisdom in the modern world. The hexagrams are figures comprised of six stacked horizontal lines, with each line representing the Chinese concept of Yin or Yang – polar opposite forces that nevertheless coexist and may even complement each other. The 64 hexagrams supposedly represent every situation in life that one may experience. Each hexagram describes a situation and comes with suggested actions in relation to the situation. Prof. Sin suggests that I-Ching is particularly useful when leaders are challenged with crises and conflicts amid the pandemic and other uncertainties in the world.

As an example for entrepreneurs, Prof. Sin listed four hexagrams that might be useful. They are the hexagram Zhun 屯 (Difficult at the Beginning), hexagram Meng 蒙 (Enlightenment, Education), hexagram Xiaoxu 小畜 (Small Accumulating) and hexagram Xu 需 (Waiting, Nourishment). Specifically, hexagram Zhun describes the difficulties one may face at the beginning of a new venture or situation – just like a plant sprouting from the ground, but there will be great progress and success from staying firm and correcting one’s path. Hexagram Meng reminds people to be aware of for careless or rebellious attitude due to the lack of experience. Hexagram Xiaoxu encourages people to stay positive even when their voices are weak and to remain determined to make progress. Hexagram Xu reminds people to be patient and proceed cautiously with their plans and their ultimate goal can be accomplished.

Another example is change management. Prof. Sin named three hexagrams – hexagram Gu 蠱 (Decay), hexagram Ge 革 (Reform, Revolution) and hexagram Ding 鼎 (The Cauldron) that are worth taking into consideration when organisations are going through transformations. Hexagram Gu depicts a situation when something is rotting, just like weeds growing everywhere in an untended garden and it is time to repair the damage. Hexagram Ge describes conflicts that always occur alongside changes and the fact that to successfully implement changes, one must launch the change at the right moment and get support from people. Hexagram Ding– the hexagram that follows hexagram Ge, symbolises rejuvenation. It describes the stage after revolution when people have fulfilled their dreams and their actions are properly valued.

I-Ching hexagrams are figures comprised of six stacked horizontal lines, with each line representing the Chinese concept of Yin or Yang.

When dealing with crisis, three other hexagrams might come in handy. They are hexagram Kan 坎 (Double Pitfall), hexagram Jian 蹇 (Obstacles) and hexagram Kun 困 (Adversity, Exhaustion). Hexagram Kan points out that one must take all available precautious to remove themselves from harm’s way. Hexagram Jian explains that temporary obstacles are bound to occur when someone is trying to reach a goal or fulfil an ambition and any difficulties faced are conducive for personal growth and self-discovery. Hexagram Kun reminds people to stay hopeful even when faced with failures and to work on their inner strength during periods of adversity.

By categorising the 64 hexagrams according to the common business management topics, Prof. Sin says the I-Ching provides a handy reference for business leaders facing different types of situations. “To make a decision or find an answer for a specific problem, one must conduct thorough observation and analysis of the current situation, in order to find the most relevant hexagram and then, one can make the best judgment and solution for the situation.”

Revelations for Leaders

For future leaders, Prof. Sin notes that there is one hexagram that is particularly relevant – hexagram Qian 乾 (Heaven). This hexagram describes the six stages of a dragon’s movement. Dragon is an important symbol in Chinese culture, symbolising great power, authority and strength. Prof. Sin points out that the six stages of the dragon’s movement accurately corresponds to the different stages of a leader’s career.

Hexagram Qian begins by describing a dragon hiding in the deep, which corresponds to the management trainee stage when someone first starts his career journey. This stage is not the time for big actions as one’s position in the organisational hierarchy is very low. The second stage depicts a dragon appearing in the field. According to Prof. Sin, it is the time when a management trainee has been promoted to the level of an assistant manager, and his ability has begun to be recognised. This is also the right time to seek external help to further advance one’s career.

For future leaders, the hexagram that is particularly relevant is hexagram Qian 乾 (Heaven), which describes the six stages of a dragon’s movement.

The third stage reminds people to remain vigilant at all times. Prof. Sin highlights that this stage corresponds to one’s first successes in a career, such as being promoted to the post of departmental manager. A leader must be very careful and continue to upgrade his ability at this stage of his career. The fourth stage describes a dragon as it is poised to leap into the air. For a leader in the making, this is the make-or-break moment. Prof. Sin explains that this is the time to challenge one’s full potential and grasp opportunities for success.

The fifth stage depicts a dragon flying in the sky. After passing stage four, this is where the leader has made it to the top. Prof. Sin reminds leaders who are currently at this stage of their career to stay humble and enhance self-regulation. The sixth stage shows a dragon exceeding its limit, which means it is time for repentance. In Chinese culture, it is commonly believed that when things have been pushed to their extremity, then calamity would soon follow. Therefore, Prof. Sin warns leaders to remain vigilant and not become arrogant. They must be aware of the signs of overconfidence and prepare for the fall from power.


The Virtue of Paradoxical Leadership

“What I-Ching teaches you is to do the right thing at the right time. However, to be a successful leader, you must know yourself and your ability extremely well. Let me put it more plainly, you must know if you are well-prepared or have the high ability to be a true ‘dragon’ or not. The above career cycle will only apply if you are leadership material. In other words, you have to be a ‘dragon’ that is destined to soar. It is only then that you would be able to correctly consult I-Ching when making important decisions in your life and career,” Prof. Sin says.