Step away from the boardroom and into the pool
A view from Andy Nairn

Step away from the boardroom and into the pool

Mao Zedong was a monster but also a master communicator who wrongfooted his opponents with the power of his imagination

OK, I'll get my apology in first. I'm going to tell you a story about one of the monsters of the 20th century. Not any old psychopath, either – by some reckonings, Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths than any other person in human history (up to 45 million if you include victims of state-induced famine). So I’m genuinely sorry if this comes across like one of those awful "What marketers can learn from Ted Bundy" kind of pieces that pop up now and then. However, it’s a sad fact that Mao (like most dictators) was a master communicator and I’ve just read a story about his powers of imagination, which I thought was very telling. So if I promise to make my next piece about a much less controversial leader like Winston Churchill, will you read on? Thank you.

The year is 1958. Nikita Khrushchev is visiting his supposed ally in Beijing but relations between the Soviet Union and China are anything but comradely: the two nations disagree over ideology and have conflicting geo-political ambitions. Talks are arranged to resolve these differences but Mao realises that he is coming to the table as the weaker party: at this point, the Soviets are on a high, having just launched the Sputnik space programme and China is still a relatively new power. Mao knows that he won’t win a conventional debate so he decides to wrongfoot his opponent (or as he puts it: "stick a needle up his ass").

There now unfolds one of the most extraordinary incidents in diplomatic history.  When the Soviets arrive, they discover that Mao has switched the venue to his private swimming pool at Zonghanhai. Not only that, but the Great Helmsman is waiting for them in a bathrobe – and offers their own premier a pair of ill-fitting trunks. Khrushchev is embarrassed because he is badly out of shape and can’t swim (facts that Mao knows very well). But he is determined not to lose face, so he follows his rival into the water, hoping that this is simply a precursor to the formal negotiations. It is not. Big mistake.

Mao has a fine physique and is a great swimmer (he will later claim to break a world record at the age of 72). He ploughs up and down the pool, shouting out his demands as he goes. The Soviet translators have to jog along the sides to keep up and relay the arguments back to their boss as he bobs about in the shallow end. Khrushchev no longer resembles one of the most powerful men on earth but a short, tubby bloke who is literally out of his depth.

Mao, on the other hand, is triumphant and the only concession he makes all day is to offer his humiliated rival a pair of children’s waterwings. Some historians trace the Soviet Union’s demise and China’s rise all the way back to this very moment.

So what’s the moral of this tale? Well, hopefully it’s not too hard to spot: this is surely a great example of how you can defeat a more powerful opponent by radically switching the battlefield. Too often we meekly accept conventions that have been invented by our rivals, for their own benefit. We play by their rules, on their pitch, at a time of their choosing. We try to out-argue them on their own terms. We think rationally, rather than laterally. And guess what: none of this works, because these solutions are inherently incremental rather than disruptive.

What’s interesting is that six decades after the Zonghanhai incident, diplomats and marketers are both exploring the role of artificial intelligence in making better decisions. Unlike many, I think that’s a welcome development that should be enormously beneficial to humanity and our industry alike. But I’m still more interested in GI than AI. Because while AI might help you make a better argument, it takes genuine imagination to take the argument away from the boardroom and into the pool. 

Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals