Among the most difficult parts of leadership for ordinary people, even for distinguished ones, is to protect your access to things you don’t want to hear. Because your lieutenants and inside team know bad news will make you angry or upset, they will not pass it on unless you seek that most priceless information out proactively.
FDR used to set his people against each other to be sure this kind of thing got to him. One of the best bosses I ever had did it by hiring no two people alike, nobody like himself, and no-one who wasn’t smarter than he was in at least three of Gardner’s eight ways.
The Chinese autocrats have the idea that staffing the Catholic Church in China themselves would be a lot more comfortable for them than having an independent church telling people, and them, who knows what; of course the Vatican sees it differently even though the pope certainly faces this problem in his own administration.
The story echoes some very on-point historical precedents. Nathan told David exactly what he didn’t want to hear about Bathsheba, an early and classic example of what Aaron Wildavsky called “speaking truth to power.” To David’s credit, he listened instead of sending Nathan the way of Uriah. Henry II had the same idea the Chinese have, that putting his main guy, Thomas Becket, in charge of the church as well as the government would be much more comfortable and an implementation coup for all sorts of good initiatives. Unfortunately, Thomas realized that an independent (of the civil power) church was a valuable institution, gave back the chancellor’s ring, and got into a fatal spat with Henry over–you guessed it–appointment of bishops. The story is usually told emphasizing the importance of this independence for the souls of the people, and for the welfare of the church itself, as though church and state are engaged in a sort of zero-sum battle. We tend to forget that it’s invaluable to the civil power to have independent, courageous sources of moral and other (scientific and military, to choose examples completely at random, um hum) guidance. Our current administration, of course, is not entirely clear on this principle.
Killing messengers or writing their lines for them is always disastrous. If the Chinese don’t wake up about this, they will come to regret it.
I once heard Dick Neustadt muttering something negative in a seminar about the “speaking truth to power” motto for public policy schools, a motto which is, of course, very flattering to those of us who make a living in them. I asked him to elaborate, and he said “well…the idea that anyone has The Truth, let alone them! [meaning especially our wet-behind-the-ears though generally wonderful young alums].” Both Aaron and Dick are right up there in my personal pantheon of high-candlepower sources, so the real complexity of the idea of informed expert counsel to legitimate authority has stuck with me. What’s important is that authority hear a lot of ideas it doesn’t enjoy, not that all of those need to be correct.