Tao Te Ching: Five Principles of Ancient Wisdom for Effective Leaders

At the recommendation of a friend, I just finished reading the ancient Tao Te Ching for the first time. The text dates back to at least 4 – 6 BCE, and is a classic Chinese book as well as a sacred text of Taoism. Like any ancient or sacred text, we must be careful of making the generalizations contained in the text too literal, or too specific to every situation. Rather, Tao Te Ching contains some ancient wisdom also affirmed by other sacred texts, as well as secular books on leadership and life. As I read Tao Te Ching, I reflected on five general pearls of wisdom that I gleaned from its pages that can make us all better leaders, employees, and human beings. I used the translation by Stephen Mitchell in this edition, and the text of Tao Te Ching is in italics below.

1. Avoid labels, stereotypes and snap judgments.

When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.

Ultimately, leaders must make decisions, and some things will be efficient, and some will not be. Some things will be of value, and others will not be. Some things will create revenue, and others will not. Some people will be effective employees, and others will not. But the best leaders do not make these judgments quickly. They have disciplined themselves to hold some things in a place of indecision for a while. They know that there is value in listening to those with whom you generally disagree, and especially in entertaining the criticism of your biggest critic. They understand that those who may appear least likely to contribute something of value, such as a previously unemployed person or a person on the low end of the pay scale, sometimes add something of extraordinary value. Ultimately, we must make decisions. That’s what leaders do. But learn the discipline of refraining from quick judgments, labels and stereotypes of ideas or people. You will learn more, grow more, and lead more.

On her final show on network television, Oprah said that she learned that the secret to success is that, “Everyone wants to be heard without judgment. I see you. I hear you. What you say matters to me.” That happens when we give ourselves to others and shut off our relentless need to assess, analyze and compare.

2. Learn to embrace the present before you try to change the future.

Have faith in the way things are. And, at another point, Practice non-doing and everything will fall into place. This runs counter to every bone in our high achievement bodies as leaders. We are paid to make things happen. We grow inpatient with the slow pace of change. We want results over night. But the ancient sacred texts all affirm the same thing: learning to accept the present moment is key to opening up the future moment. The Serenity Prayer has that great line, “Help to change what I can change, and to accept what I cannot.” As leaders, we always are looking into the future, trying to reach some revenue or strategic goal out there in the future. We may even find our present careers or lives unacceptable, and we desperately want to experience financial gains, or love, or a new career. But there is great value in learning to accept what already is as the way things are supposed to be.

I’ve doubted this for a great part of my life, always feeling the tug of incompleteness rather than the peace of knowing that the present moment is just as it should be. I would fret over some career or personal loss. Then a few months or years later, what seemed like a setback then turned out to be the best thing for me in the future. Even some of my most challenging moments in my career have turned out to be exactly what I needed to go deeper inside myself to find my authentic self, or my deepest callings, or to embark on new directions. There are no “bad” moments (see #1 above) if we accept that things are the way they are for a reason. Learn from it. Embrace it. And then welcome what comes next.

3. Don’t live or lead for the approval of others. 

If leadership studies are to be believed, some leaders are particularly given to leading for the approval of others. It’s just in some of our DNA to need the applause of others when we lead or when we act. I currently am reading the biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, Passages of Power, the third in his LBJ series, and he identifies this one flaw as one of LBJ’s greatest weaknesses. Because of a childhood where he was often rejected by his peers and sometimes by his own mother, he had a visceral need to know that he was never going to be left out, left behind or disliked. This caused him to tell different things to different people, waste hours on the smallest of acts to buy someone’s affection, and to adopt an awkward aggressiveness towards others whose affection for him was not mutual.

Tao Te Ching says, When you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compete or compare, everybody will respect you.Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.

With the political conventions and campaign season now upon us, watch for those leaders who are straightforward about who they are, who tell the truth without spin, and who are humorous and honest about their weaknesses. Those are the leaders we tend to trust. The leaders we distrust are those we feel are always manufacturing an image that would please us, and ultimately we reject people, employees or leaders that are just trying too hard. Tao says that the Master in life is the one who has nothing to prove. “Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words.”

4. Controlling is not the same thing as leading. 

Leaders trust the present moment, and they also trust that the right directions, ideas and people will emerge for the future. Therefore, they can plant their seed and cast their nets today, and trusting that these will take hold and come to fruition in the proper season without cajoling, forcing or controlling people or the process. But often leaders think they need to micromanage and control every employee and step in the process or it will go awry. This couldn’t be more untrue. Miraculous things happen when we let go, step back, and trust employees to deliver their best.

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? … Giving birth and nourishing, having without possessing, acting with no expectations, leading and not trying to control; this is the supreme virtue. Where are you intervening too much? Where could you state your objectives and goals, then leave it to your employees to work out the details? Where could you be loosening the grip on people or ideas? The ones that you feel you can’t let go or probably the exact ones where you need to do it, and watch what happens. The ancient wisdom says, If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.

In a famous text from Tao, the author says, The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!

5. Never resort to revenge, violence or slander.

For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon itself. Tao qualifies that even “well-intentioned” violence rebounds because this the kind of violence we most often perpetuate. We take actions for someone’s “own good.” We give harsh criticism because a lot is at stake. We reason with ourselves that a revengeful act is justified because someone treated us unfairly or unjustly. Or we just send an email full of venom or sarcasm to make ourselves feel better. But Tao Te Ching counters, There is no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself. There is no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

The greatest leaders know, as Churchill once said, “There are no permanent enemies; only permanent interests.” Every time that I have written, emailed or said something to another person that came from a place of anger or frustration in me, I have later regretted it. When I have refrained, I later have been so grateful because I found common cause with that person later on another project or situation. Or time just had a way of making old wrongs seem irrelevant, and the relationship proved more valuable. Tao tells us that the way to deal with frustration and anger is not violence or retribution, but rather letting go:

If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish.

And Tao says later, in a summary of almost everything in the sacred text, The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

And that’s how leaders who are in touch with themselves, with others and the great wisdom of the universe, lead. Not by control. Not by violence. Not by a manufactured self. But rather by letting go. By holding back. By accepting. And most of all, by being our truest selves in the humble service of others.

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One Response to “Tao Te Ching: Five Principles of Ancient Wisdom for Effective Leaders”
  1. Congratulations mate that is superb

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