Thursday, October 21, 2010


England expects that every man will do his duty.
--Lord Horatio Nelson

We seem to be on a military roll this week, as today marks the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Lord Horatio Nelson and the British navy triumphed over the combined might of the French and Spanish, sailing on a ship with the appropriate name of Victory. Lord Nelson died at the end of the battle, but not before emblazoning his name into English history books. Nelson’s legacy includes a legendary leadership ability--so potent, in fact, that he’s leading all of us, today, to the next stop on our journey, for a look at the fascinating Chinese virtue of Xin-Ren (Trust).

But first,  Lord Nelson’s story: Born in 1758 to a family of modest means in Norfolk, Horatio entered the navy on the advice of his uncle and rose through the ranks quickly due to his combined virtues of Valor and Savvy. War injuries rendered him blind in one eye, and during a battle off the Canary Islands in 1797 he took a musketball to his right arm, which a battlefield surgeon soon amputated. Within an hour of losing his arm, Nelson returned to his command. (Wow.) He had some career setbacks due to a reputation for over-zealous pursuit of the enemy and occasionally turning a literal “blind eye” towards orders to retreat.

Nelson’s renown, however, lies in what he referred to as “the Nelson Touch.” Originally this was a moniker for a specific tactic of “divide and conquer” Nelson would use against lines of enemy ships. The tactic relied on Nelson’s unusual level of Trust in his lieutenants, to whom he gave an inordinate degree of Autonomy. A micromanager could never have led such a maneuver. Eventually naval officers began to use the expression “the Nelson Touch” to refer not to the tactic, but to the inspiring leadership Nelson showed among his sailors and petty officers.

And that brings us to Xin-Ren (sometimes written Xing-Ren). Cross cultural scholars have long observed that for the development of the all-important and rather informal Guanxi or “Relationships” that grease the wheels of business in China, Xin-Ren (Trust) gives grease to the grease. Trust has two dimensions: You believe the person you trust has genuine interest in your well-being, and you believe the person has the ability to do what you need him/her to do. Xin-Ren reflects this, as the Chinese word “xin” refers to a person’s Sincerity and concern for the other party, and “ren” refers to Usability, Dependability, or, in business circles, Employability. (Coincidentally, in a few weeks we’ll explore another compound virtue, the Japanese samurai virtue of Chuugi, whose first portion chuu also means “Sincerity.”)

In virtues literature, it can get confusing distinguishing between Trust--your willingness to rely on a person--and Trustworthiness, or the Merit that warrants that Trust. Clearly Trust and Trustworthiness label the same relationship from different directions: When you pass someone a basketball, you show Trust in giving up the ball, and you have that Trust due to the Trustworthiness of the receiver, whose abilities will hopefully yield a slam dunk.

Horatio Nelson’s sailors may have had Trust in him, but what made “the Nelson Touch” legend, and what won his battles, lay in the Trust he showed his officers. The tactic Lord Nelson used required Xin-Ren--the Trust he had that his sailors had both the Ability and the Will to carry out Nelson’s plan.

None of us gets anywhere in life without Trust. We make a leap of Faith every second of the day, from our Trust in the safety of the water we drink and the cars we drive; Trust in our co-workers to support us in our duties; Trust in our personal relationships, where we feel our Vulnerability most tenderly. In passing the ball of Trust or receiving it, how to we communicate our Xin, our Sincerity? How do we convey our Ren, our Reliability? Do we feel those qualities? When your Trust in others fails, does it have more often to do with doubt in others’ Will, or Ability? When we let others down, on which axis do we crump?

Bring to mind Xin-Ren during your reflections today, and recall how its flow between Nelson and his men forged a Power and brought them Victory upon Victory.

May we see the gates of Xin-Ren, and perhaps make a home there.

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