After the rumours were finally confirmed last week that Professor Gordon Shirley, principal of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, would soon be sailing into a new port of call, I had a spirited conversation with an optimistic colleague. In response to my fears that the campus would now be facing a leadership crisis, he reassuringly reminded me of that famous gem of Chinese wisdom: danger + opportunity = crisis. It’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a fortune cookie.
As it turns out, it’s a fake gem – even though all sorts of people have brandished it. John F. Kennedy once famously declared, “[T]he Chinese use two brushstrokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brushstroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.”
This much-recycled formula is not an accurate decoding of the Chinese symbols. In Kennedy’s case, the error is understandable. We don’t expect politicians to be linguists. Double-speak is their usual armour.
In an article on the Pínyín.info website, Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylannia, relates an amusing anecdote: “I first encountered this curious specimen of alleged oriental wisdom about 10 years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling.
“At that moment, I didn’t have the heart to disappoint my gullible neighbour who was blissfully imbibing what he assumed were the gems of Far Eastern sagacity enshrined within the pages of his workbook. Now, however, the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction.”
According to Professor Mair, the seductive proposition that danger and opportunity are equally balanced in a crisis is nothing but “wishful thinking”, based largely on a “fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages”. Mair shows that ‘weiji’, the word for ‘crisis’, is made up of two syllables, ‘wei’ (danger) and ‘ji’.
Contrary to popular misconception, ‘ji’ definitely does not mean ‘opportunity’. Instead, it means ‘crucial point (when something begins or changes)’. Mair confirms that “a weiji is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits”.
As far as I can tell, the only opportunity in the leadership crisis on the Mona campus is for those who will be ‘run-jostling’ to temporarily replace Professor Shirley. Not surprisingly, the contenders are all male, from what I’ve heard. It appears as if there is no female who can fill the shoes of the well-heeled Professor Shirley, even if only for three years, the unusual duration of his secondment to the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ).
Secondment is a tricky business. It’s leaving and staying at the same time, somewhat like a bad marriage. You don’t want to cut your losses and just get a divorce. But you do want the freedom to roam. Secondment can turn out to be a case of either danger or opportunity for the secondee. You may like your new place of employment so much you can’t possibly return to the arms of your former love. That’s the opportunity. Or, you might dislike your new job so much you have to beg to be taken back. That’s the danger.
For the institution that gets left behind, it’s usually more danger and less opportunity. Like a rejected lover, those who have been abandoned keep pining for the missing member. In the case of the principalship of the Mona campus, it’s the head of the institution that’s leaving. A head is not an appendage that can easily be replaced with a prosthesis. He or she symbolises the brainpower of the institution.
FAILURE AT SUCCESSION PLANNING
Especially given Professor Shirley’s distinguished performance as principal, it is imperative that he not be replaced by a stand-in who may have no mandate to bring his or her own distinctive vision to the task of leading the Mona campus. Curiously enough, the three-year term of Professor Shirley’s secondment is exactly half the length of his six-year tenure as principal. It’s a long time for the Mona campus to be led by a place-holder.
Furthermore, three years is a very short time for the new head of the PAJ to make his mark on that foundering institution. The relatively youthful Professor Shirley is replacing an octogenarian, Noel Hylton, who headed the PAJ for almost 40 years! It is hardly likely that in a mere three years Professor Shirley will be able to turn the ship around.
In a stinging Gleaner article, ‘Port Authority – a study in Jamaican management’, published on January 4, 2013, Aubyn Hill asks two damning questions: “No directive was given to prepare not one but a small group of able successors for Hylton? No younger Jamaican managers were capable?” Hill blames both the ministers of government and the members of successive boards of the PAJ for their collective failure at succession planning.
Professor Shirley is a serial secondee. He fully understands the politics of planting his feet firmly in two places at once. But, in this instance, both the Mona campus of the UWI and the PAJ are likely to suffer as a consequence of the temporariness of his appointment. Both institutions will be held in limbo, awaiting permanent leadership. And that’s ‘weiji fi true’.