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What can you learn from Chairman Mao?

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Even after President Richard Nixon’s historic arrival in mainland China in 1972, he wasn’t certain that he’d meet Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese leader was seriously ill, and Nixon had received no invitation in advance.

But as soon as Air Force One touched down, Mao wanted Nixon brought to him. Mao was “as excited as I had ever seen him,” remembered Mao’s long-suffering personal physician, who’d worked around the clock to make the chairman well enough to be seen. Chinese leaders persuaded Mao to slow down.

Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger learned that Mao wanted to see them “fairly soon.” In fact, Mao was used to making others conform to his schedule, so the Americans bundled into a car and went to Mao’s villa. In Chinese tradition, guests typically are kept off-balance, partly to make them feel grateful for a meeting.

But Mao was delighted to see Nixon. He took Nixon’s hand and shook it warmly for a long time. Nixon complimented Mao on his learning and expressed admiration for his writing. When Mao demurred, Nixon noted that the author of the Little Red Book had changed the world.

Mao said Nixon’s writing wasn’t bad, either.

“I voted for you during your election,” Mao added. “I like rightists.”

The meeting, planned for 15 minutes, lasted more than an hour. At one point, Mao seized Nixon’s hand again and held it for almost a minute.

Nixon’s meeting with Mao was merely symbolic, but symbolism matters. It sent a clear signal to the world that Mao was personally engaged in the historic visit. As Mao himself put it: “You must seize the hour and seize the day.”

Lesson: Don’t let politics or differences of opinion separate you from strategic alliances or prevent you from showing genuine admiration for your competitors.

-- Adapted from Nixon in China, Margaret MacMillan, Penguin.

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