I spent the majority of my recent business trip in Hong Kong, but not all of it. I ventured into mainland China towards the end of my stay into a city I’d never visited before. Though Hong Kong is considered one of China’s assets, it is its own country and there are quite a number of differences between the two. One of the most noticeable, for the casual traveler, is how traffic is handled. Hong Kong has one of the best public transportation systems I have ever experienced. I rarely needed a car to get from one point to another, and that is a good thing for me considering they drive on the right hand side of the road. Mass transit wasn’t an option for me on the other side of the border.
Chinese traffic is similar to American traffic only in that you drive on the left. I was more than a little glad that arrangements had been made to keep me away from the steering wheel during my travel as there are significantly less traffic lights than I am used to, in fact there were several miles that lacked any lights at all. Upon closer inspection I noticed a distinct lack of stop signs as well. These missing elements combined with anything goes type attitude looked terrifying to my inexperienced eye. I thought that in this chaos it was only a matter of time before an accident occurred, but somehow cars were able to maneuver around each other as well as bicyclists, and pedestrians, albeit with excessive (in my opinion) horn honking.
Ahead of my trip I had loaded up on reading material. By pure coincidence, two of the novels I selected were set in dystopian futures. One was Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon Thompson. Set in a world with extreme immigration control and anti-drug laws, the novel asks what is more important, security or personal freedom? The other was Matched by Ally Condie in which our future is made happy by limiting everyone to the mere minimum of personal choice.
In both books, there is an official who is fully aware of the bad qualities of their society, but supports the system anyway. These aren’t evil villains. In their minds order equals group happiness and is valued over individual wants. I have a soft spot for dystopian novels, ever since I first read 1984 by George Orwell. I had always related to the protagonists in these stories, rebelling against their totalitarian regimes. I thought there must be something deeply wrong with the antagonist’s mindset for them to think that what they were embracing was truly in the best interest of society, not just in their best interest.
But then I looked at the street corners where the traffic signs should stand, afraid that at any time a car might come barreling into my side, and realized that I was thinking like the officials, the bad guys/gals. Although I had been there only a day, I thought I knew what they needed better than they did. However, we were on the road several hours and the accident that I was so convinced was imminent never occurred. It might not make sense to me, but I had to admit that, somehow, the system worked for them. Who was I to think that the traffic rules I utilized at home, such as the concept of right of way, were in some way better than that what these people had devised for themselves?
I was reminded that the best leaders do not dictate the rules, but instead provide a tangible goal, and then allow their teams the flexibility to develop their own best method of reaching it. A method based on their own strengths, weakness, and most importantly, their own culture. Who else is better qualified to evaluate those traits than the people themselves? It can be hard to step back sometimes, but just because their method might be different from what you’d do, doesn’t make them wrong. Who knows? They might just surprise you too.