Humanity, Simplicity, Humility: Lao Tzu on Leadership

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Humanity, Simplicity, Humility: Lao Tzu on Leadership

  1. 1. © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 1 of 5 Humanity, Simplicity, Humility: Lao Tzu on Leadership Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA MatthewAGilbert.com mttglbrt@gmail.com (661) 513-3370 Abstract Whether for physical, mental or spiritual guidance, individuals often look to others for information and inspiration. Ironically, true leaders are rarely gregarious extroverts. In fact, history offers many examples of people who have reluctantly, or even accidentally, become leaders. Surprisingly, the resulting humility of these leaders yields a lasting legacy. Framed within the context of Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu, this paper explores how the ideals of humanity, simplicity and humility serve as catalysts for developing leadership skills within us and act as guideposts by which we can assess those who seek to lead us. I. The Legacy of Lao Tzu Popular culture would have you believe that leadership is defined by action. While physical acts of bravery are often required of leaders, true leadership is more often defined by what is not done, rather than what is. Leaders are not always heroes and heroes are not always leaders. History offers examples of many individuals who have reluctantly, or even accidentally, become leaders. Yet, these humble people have made an impact far beyond their shadows. Surprisingly, the resulting humility from these people yields greater results than from traditionally viewed leaders. Because they might feel unqualified for the position, these leaders remain flexible to input from their followers. They spend time listening before doing, ensuring they understand what is needed before determining how best to accomplish the goal. As offered by DePree (1989): The true leader is a listener. The leader listens to the ideas, needs, aspirations, and wishes of the followers and then – within the context of his or her own well-developed system of beliefs – responds to these in an appropriate fashion. (p. xxi) DePree’s words mirror those of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Thought to have lived between 600 and 300 B.C.E, Lao Tzu is credited with writing the Tao Te Ching – a collection of 81 philosophical tracts integrating a deep love of nature with abhorrence for complexity. As explained in Chew (1996): Lao Tzu believed…‘simplicity’ to be the key to truth and freedom. Lao Tzu encouraged his followers to observe, and seek to understand the laws of
  2. 2. Humanity, Simplicity, Humility… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 2 of 5 nature; to develop intuition and build up personal power; and to use that power to lead life with love, and without force. (p. 2) The teachings of Lao Tzu have helped people tackle life’s challenges for eons. Anchored in the timeless idea of ‘Tao,’ the Tao Te Ching can be adapted to nearly any modern situation. As proposed by Heider (1985), “Tao is the single principle underlying all creation…Tao can be known. The method is…being aware...By being aware…I…sense how it is happening…I must pay attention with an open mind… I must set aside my personal prejudices or bias,” (p. 1). II. Internal Intelligence: The First Step In more current terms, DePree (1998) suggests, “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” (p. 11). Accordingly, before any steps can be made, a leader must have an unbiased awareness of his environment. Although “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” (Heider, 1985, p. 127), it is imperative that step is made in the right direction. Discovering this requires quiet and careful introspection. Leadership starts inside the leader: before a leader can master others, he must first master himself. In Heider (1985), Lao Tzu instructs leaders to “get your own life in order,” (p.107). Equally important is the idea that a leader cannot improve another individual, but only facilitate that person’s progress. Cautioning those who seek to lead and be lead alike, Lao Tzu warns, “No teacher can make you be happy, prosperous, healthy, or powerful,” (Heider, 1985, p. 37). A leader must also recognize that the changes he makes internally will affect those who follow him externally. Acknowledging this responsibility is essential for effective leadership. Lao Tzu (Heider, 1985) reminds leaders, “your behavior influences others through a ripple effect…Powerful people are powerful influencers…be sure that your influence is both potent and wholesome,” (p. 107). Overall, Lao Tzu’s concepts of leadership are crystallized the following three functions: “Compassion for all creatures…material simplicity…a sense of…modesty,” (Heider, 1985, p. 133). III. Humanity: Connect with Compassion English poet and artist William Blake understood the idea that “Tao is one; Tao is unity,” (Heider, 1985, p. 7). A leader must grasp this concept and treats everyone equally – never forgetting that he is not afforded special privileges. Capturing this concept in Abrams (1993), Blake writes “and all must love the human form…In heathen, Turk or Jew…Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell…There God is dwelling too,” (p. 32). Division is the antithesis of leadership, whereas unification is the apex. Understanding the importance of unity in an organization is a skill required of successful leaders. Leaders must bring people together towards their common characteristics, and not drive them apart based on their differences. This is Tao.
  3. 3. Humanity, Simplicity, Humility… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 3 of 5 Warning against division, Lao Tzu cautions, “when a person forgets that all creation is a unity, allegiance goes to lesser wholes…Nationalism, racism, classism, sexism: all arise as consciousness of unity is lost,” (Heider, 1985, p. 35). Hatred is the prevention of progress. Love is the lynchpin of leadership. IV. Simplicity: Reduce your Resistance Expectations are the enemy of achievement. The compulsion to continually achieve beyond what has been acquired often leads to frustration, depression and, possibly failure. Schopenhauer (1970) proposes the following thoughts about this: Man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy…their satisfaction achieves nothing but…boredom; and…boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life…possessed in itself a positive value and real content…mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. (p. 53-54) After juxtaposing Schopenhauer’s concerns with Lao Tzu’s teachings, the result is clearly that removing expectations removes boredom (suffering). Accordingly, Lao Tzu proposes, “because the wise leader has no expectations, no outcome can be called a failure,” (Heider, 1985, p. 127). Goals are great, but don’t become obsessed with them to the point of sickness. Expectations create requirements that, when not realized, shatter the self-confidence of the person to whom they were essential. This intersects another precept of Lao Tzu: “whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow. Whatever is rigid and blocked will atrophy and die,” (Heider, 1985, p. 151). Flexibility and adaptability are the key to a simple and ultimately successful life. V. Humility: Follow to Leader Leggo your ego! Lao Tzu claims “enlightened leadership is service, not selfishness,” (Heider, 1985, p. 13). A leader should care more about the development and dreams of his followers than his personal desires. It can be argued that a leader should sacrifice ego for we go – meaning the emphasis is placed on the forward progress of the group, not on his or her individual achievement during the tenure of his position. This sentiment is complimented by DePree (1989) who asserts, “the leader is the ‘servant,’ of his followers in that he removes the obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs. In short, the true leader enables his or her followers to realize their full potential,” (p. xx). Leadership is about empowering others to succeed. Ironically, leaders are individuals who remain in the background and rarely command the spotlight. Good leadership is often an exercise in obscurity. Accordingly, Lao Tzu further reminds leaders they are actually, “facilitating another person’s process. It is not your process. Do not intrude. Do not control. Do not force your own needs and insights into the foreground. If you do not trust a person’s process, that person will not trust you,”
  4. 4. Humanity, Simplicity, Humility… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 4 of 5 (Heider, 1985, p. 33) In short: instead of follow the leader, humility teaches us how we can follow to leader. VI. Conclusion: Initiating Introspection The application of these ideas can lead to inner awareness, which then manifests organizational enlightenment. From inner peace comes outer power. Realize, however, that implementing this ancient insight is by no means an easy task. Notably, the teachings of Lao Tzu are anchored to the concept of polarity. The secret to successfully completing this “cycle of self” is finding equilibrium between two polar extremes of existence: Yin and Yang. An extreme of any degree is unhealthy – simply inverting your environment and actions will never yield success. Although Lao Tzu generally favors receptivity, he recognizes the need for “gentle interventions,” (Heider, 1985, p. 85). Lao Tzu encourages a balanced approach between masculine and feminine characteristics. Between these two magnetically opposed poles is harmony. According to Murphy (1970), “the Chinese mystics who wrote the I Ching…accepted the opposites in this world,” (p. 19). Echoing this in Heider (1985), Lao Tzu explains: The leader can act as a warrior or…healer…As a warrior, the leader acts with power and decision…That is the Yang…Most of the time…the leader acts as a healer…in an open, receptive, and nurturing state. That is the…Yin aspect…This mixture of doing and being…warrior and healer, is…productive and potent. (p. 55) As you begin your journey inward, don’t assume that is a one-way trip. Change never occurs in a vacuum, and each modification you make to your life will inevitably open another door through which you must pass to better yourself. Murphy (1970) adds, “nothing is forever…go back to…where Tao…dwells…establish yourself in harmony with God; then…reconcile with the opposites in your life. When poised, serene, calm and quiet in the presence of God, you can decide how to handle any situation (p. 19). Consider this a blessing, not a curse. Continuous introspection and improvement is an adventure with a unique reward: the real you. References Abrams, M.H. (Ed.). (1993). The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Sixth Edition). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Chew, R. (1996). Lao Tzu (Old Master): Chinese Taoist Philosopher. Downloaded June 21, 2003 from http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/96jun/laotzu.html. Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. DePree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Bantam Dell (Random House, Inc.).
  5. 5. Humanity, Simplicity, Humility… © Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA Page 5 of 5 Heider, J. (1985). The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age. Atlanta, GA: Humanics Limited. Murphy, J. (1970). Secrets of the I Ching. West Nyack, NY: Parker Publishing Company, Inc. Schopenhauer, A. (1970). Essays and Aphorisms (R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin Books USA, Inc. Publication Credit Gilbert, M. (2005). Humanity, simplicity, humility: Lao Tzu on leadership. In Adams, M. and Alkhafaji, A. (Eds.), Business Research Yearbook, Vol. XII (pp. 951-955). Saline, MI: McNaughton & Gunn.

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