Leadership is seeing a compelling future, and communicating the vision in a way that creates enthusiasm. The Taoist perspective is helpful since it cultivates a strong awareness of the patterns of Nature and how these influence human societies. With this awareness you can extrapolate these patterns into the future and see what is possible. But the future is not set in stone. Its direction is influenced by visionaries and their ability to make their vision a reality. It depends on how they go about Leading Others.
Consider the visions of the future created by early science fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Generations of engineers have been inspired by the works of Verne and Wells, producing all manner of technologies from submarines called Nautilus that could travel 20,000 leagues under the sea without surfacing, journeys to the moon and back, and the exploration of Mars. Later sci-fi writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson have also had a strong effect on the direction on how technology has developed. Regardless of form and content, all of these writers imagined a compelling future and communicated it to the world in a way that fired up people’s imaginations and caused them to want to make it a reality.
Regardless of whether you are a manager, or someone who has few relationships with those around them, the principles discussed in this section describe the Taoist way of influencing people. Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching for those who might help create a better world. Even if you are a hermit, these ideas will help you to become an effective leader of yourself, if not others.
The Steady Force of Attitude
Leading by example is the most desirable form of leadership. The enlightened leader comprehends that it is the steady force of attitude that exerts the greatest influence, more so than their actions or their words. Through their example, people come to know what a leader respects and values. These values become the motivating force behind people’s actions. The enlightened leader therefore models high regard for honesty, flexibility and spontaneity.
The enlightened leader avoids championing winners. They know that by creating one winner, they simultaneously create multiple losers who then feel under-valued. High achievers should be quietly congratulated and rewarded. Singling out high-achievers for public praise creates what Stephen Covey calls a scarcity mentality. The praise of the leader is a scarce commodity that is reserved for the favoured few. There are better ways to encourage high-achievement; encouraging people to become leaders of their self who are engaged in efforts that contribute to the greater good, sometimes working alone, sometimes in teams, always in a cooperative rather than competitive way.
The enlightened leader brings peace and stability to the group through the steady force of their positive attitudes. They do not micro-manage, allowing people to get on with their activities without interference.
According to Lao Tzu, the best kind of leader is one whose existence is barely known by those they lead. The next best are loved, the next are respected and the next are ridiculed.
The enlightened leader avoids coercion, instead they use subtle influence (like goal-setting, trust and carefully worded directives) so that the people are barely aware of their influence. The worst thing a leader can do is adopt an overbearing approach. One in which people feel they are being interfered with at some level and their need for autonomy is being disregarded. This is sure to generate resentment.
Subtle influence allows a person to develop autonomy from which they derive the satisfaction of one who manages their own affairs.
Simple, intuitively-derived ways of behaving that are in tune with the Tao are preferable to socially-defined behaviour protocols. It is all too easy with the latter to make mistakes and give unintentional offense. Correct behaviour protocols create in-groups and out-groups. In other words, those who know how to behave correctly, and the uncouth oafs who do not. It plays into the egoic tendency to categorise the world as us and them, friend and enemy. Simple, intuitively based leadership is likely to be more inclusive and compassionate, seeking commonality between people rather than points of difference.
Modes of social behaviour that are considered praiseworthy, such as self-seeking philanthropy, should be avoided. Self-seeking behaviour of any kind is primarily done for social recognition that then feeds back to improved self-esteem. It is an indication that Intuition is not being used and the person needs an external source to tell them that they are good. The enlightened leader, in tune with their intuition, practices anonymous philanthropy and enhances their self-esteem directly.
The enlightened leader therefore acts with humility and remains in close contact with their instincts. They keep their thoughts and actions simple and spontaneous. With this mind-set, they are more agile and appropriate in their responses to emerging situations. Simplicity endows power through clarity of meaning. People intuitively perceive the enlightened leader’s alignment with the Tao as a form of gravitas.
The enlightened leader therefore throws off the constraints of orthodoxy and tradition, using these only in a secondary sense, if at all. Orthodoxy can be a strait-jacket for the imagination. It constrains creativity and limits spontaneity. A tradition-bound leader will tend to base their decisions on precedent; what did my predecessors do in this situation or in 1793, our illustrious leader did this in response to a similar situation? These prefabricated responses lack insight and run the risk of not being appropriate for the current situation.
Gravitas, or force of personality can exercise strong influence on people, so it is wise to know how to cultivate it. It is manifested in the enlightened leader as they become more closely aligned with the Tao. Such alignment naturally deepens and endows substance to their personality that is intuitively perceived by others.
Observe how a person treats those over whom they have power. Do they treat them with consideration and respect, or are they harsh because they can be? The enlightened leader knows that treating everyone with simple dignity endows their actions with subtle but powerful influence; the underlying quality of gravitas.
Author John Steinbeck demonstrated true leadership with his Nobel Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In contrast, French Queen Marie-Antoinette from her privileged position showed contemptuous disregard for the welfare of the people with her let them eat cake comment. Though probably a journalistic cliché, it sums up the attitude of the French aristocracy that so enraged the people and led to the French Revolution in 1789.
Enlightened leaders do not use their position to grant their self special rewards not available to everyone. For example, executive bonuses that are many times the annual salary of ordinary employees. The simple dignity of the servant leader is most conducive to effective leadership.
Coordinating Collective Effort
Enlightened leadership is at work where the talents and abilities of diverse people are coordinated into a unified effort. It is creating an environment in which people can network and exchange ideas in pursuit of common objectives. The leader is like a lake that collects water. They provide the environment in which people can work together and exchange ideas in pursuit of common objectives. Their influence is so pervasive and subtle that people stop noticing.
Intuitive leaders therefore have the ability to unite people with diverse backgrounds into a single enterprise, thus creating a direct link between people whose only previous connection was so tenuous as to be almost invisible. The enlightened leader perceives these subtle connections and builds networks. In this way, they behave like the Tao.
Guide Rather than Rule
People dislike being forced to do anything. They want freedom to choose, or at least the appearance of freedom. So even when an enlightened leader has the authority to order people about, they avoid doing so. It is better to guide people by giving them a reason to want to do it.
As former US President Dwight Eisenhower remarked, leadership is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. The enlightened leader does this by presenting the case in such a way that the course of action is clearly in the person’s best interest.
The enlightened leader recognises the inter-connectedness of all things in the universe and uses this to cultivate a sense of solidarity with people. This oneness is a state of felt awareness and harmony between the one and the many. The enlightened leader works daily to cultivate this sense of felt connectedness. It gives insight into the rhythms and patterns of the Universe and informs the enlightened leader’s every action.
Unity of Effort
Unity of effort is achieved when the enlightened leader creates enthusiasm for their vision of the future. They put the right person in the job, provide the resources they need, the authority to make decisions, then stand back and let them do the work without unnecessary restrictions.
Lao Tzu believed that people are basically good at heart, only becoming aggressive and unruly in reaction to unreasonable force or perceived injustice. The enlightened leader therefore fosters a collaborative environment based on fairness, and behaves with simplicity and modesty. They avoid creating unnecessary internal competition which works against collaboration. Leadership that encourages people to pursue competitive strategies designed to gain advantage at the expense of others.
Replace Rigid Rules with Spontaneity
Some organisations operate with rigidly defined rules that everyone must conform to if they are not to be punished. This approach offends human nature with its unreasonable force. The consequence is that the people grow resentful and look for ways to subvert the rules, and they will usually succeed at this. When management perceives the trend, they react in the only way they know how; by exerting more pressure. The people react even more strongly, and a negative cycle of behaviour is created.
Rigidly defined rules are a form of extremism that produces sharply polarised attitudes. These attitudes are likely to be counter-productive by reducing the desire to collaborate freely. The enlightened leader knows how polarity operates in Nature, and so they avoid such extremes. They achieve their objectives without confrontation, projecting a straight-forward, down-to-earth honesty that inspires trust and confidence in people, and which provides a model for the people to emulate.
Like Cooking a Small Fish
Leading a large organisation is like cooking a small fish. This enigmatic statement conveys the need for an enlightened leader to maintain a light, delicate touch in their leadership. In the same way as it is necessary to avoid too much stirring when cooking a small fish, lest the fish fall apart in the pan. When an organisation is experiencing challenges, too much action from the leader will unbalance the situation, making it worse.
The enlightened leader knows that if there is no simple solution to a problem. It is best to simply let it be and allow the forces of Nature to evolve a solution. In this culture of simplicity and non-interference, people engaging in subterfuge become apparent, and their strategies are rendered ineffective.
Uniting the Group into a Team
The enlightened leader makes it their business to help everyone in the organisation towards fulfillment and higher attainment. Not just those that seem somehow worthy of preferment. Lesser performers are also regarded as valuable members of the group who can be helped forward with education and other opportunities. This transforms a group into a team who are united behind the leader, and in whom the desire to collaborate is strong.
Avoid Machiavellian Strategies
The enlightened leader refrains from clever strategies and political manoeuvrings. They know that this sends a message to people that they should do likewise. This leads to an escalating cycle of such behaviour in the organisation. The enlightened leader therefore acts with simplicity and directness and so encourages the people to do likewise.
The enlightened individual understands that to be a leader, one must remain below the people. He or she does this by acting and speaking with sincere humility. This is perceived as being fully identified with the people. It engenders trust because the people instinctively know that if the leader is below them, the interests of the leader will be the same as theirs. If the leader does not act superior, the people see their self in the leader. Thus this engenders respect, if not love.
The best kind of leader is compassionate, modest and does not thrust their self into prominence.
Compassion has a deeply transformative effect on a person’s mind and on those they come in contact with. It endows the leader with the ability to have a lasting effect on the world. The enlightened leader therefore manifests compassion in all their dealings.
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