The Tao of Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 1st, 2012 by bobmorris

The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age
John Heider
Humanics New Age (2005)

Timeless wisdom for each new age

The value and impact of leadership can be measured in many different ways.  Two of the most common approaches focus on who a leader is, and, on what a leader achieves. In my opinion, books that focus on authentic, values-driven leadership are part of a tradition that can be traced back to Lao Tzu and his classic, Tao Te Ching, whereas books that focus on high-impact, results-driven leadership are part of a tradition that can be traced back to Sun Tzu and his classic, The Art of War.

As John Heider explains in the Introduction to this volume, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching “is one of China’s best loved books of wisdom. It was originally addressed to the sage and to the wise political rulers of the fifth century B.C.” Lao Tzu’s book is “simple and makes sense. But even more important, is the fact that Tao Te Ching persuasively unites leadership skills and the leader’s way of life: our work is our path.” Here is my personal favorite among many passages in a work that offers timeless wisdom for each new age:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

The wisdom of these observations is especially relevant to our own age, given the unique challenges leaders now face. For example, how to increase and nourish positive and productive employee engagement at all levels and in all areas? How to develop and then sustain a culture of mutual respect and trust between and among everyone involved?

Heider suggests that Lao Tzu focuses on three separate but interdependent topics:

1. Natural law (how things happen)
2. A way of living (how to live in “conscious harmony” with natural law)
3. A method of leadership (how to govern or educate others in accordance with natural law)

Heider’s adaptation of the Tao is based on his experiences in the classroom when he and his students discuss various passages and various translations of those passages. As he acknowledges, what he offers is his own version of the meaning of Lao Tzu’s own words. Here’s my take: For aspiring leaders, the first issue to address is “Who and what am I?” Next, “Who and what must an effective leader be?” Then, “What specifically must I understand — and accept as well as relinquish — to become such a leader?” Finally, “How can I help other aspiring leaders to complete that process of development?”

Here are a few of the dozens of passages in Heider’s version that caught my eye:

o  On Tao Means How: “Tao is a principle. Creation, on the other hand, is a process. That is all there is: principle and process, how and what. All creation unfolds according to Tao. There is no other way.”

o  On Success: “A good reputation naturally arises from doing good work. But if you try to cherish your reputation, if you try to preserve it, you lose the freedom and honesty necessary for further development.”

o  On Traditional Wisdom:  “Most people are plagued by endless needs, but the wise leader is content with relatively little. Most people lead busy lives, but the wise leader is quiet and reflective. Most people seek stimulation and novelty, but the wise leader prefers what is common and natural.

“Being content permits simplicity in life. What is common is universal. What is natural is close to the source of creation.

“This is traditional wisdom.”

o  On Unity: “Tao cannot be defined. One can only say that it is the single principle responsible for every event or thing. When the leader has regard for this principle, and for no lesser principles, the group memvers must trust the leader. Because the leader pays equal attention to everything that happens, there are no prejudices to divide the group into factions. There is unity.”

o   On Three Leadership Qualities [133]:  “These three qualities are invaluable to the leader: Compassion for all creatures, material simplicity or frugality, and a sense of equality or modesty. A compassionate person acts in behalf of everyone’s right to life. Material simplicity gives one an abundance to share. A sense of equality is, paradoxically, one’s true greatness.”

Whatever the nature and extent of Heider’s revisions of the primary text(s) may be, the narrative is nimble and cohesive. The clarity of his prose gives eloquence to Lao Tzu’s insights. I am certain that many people who read The Tao of Leadership with an open mind (and heart) will become a more effective leader and, meanwhile, a more fulfilled human being.

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Note: John Heider recommends five translations and renditions of Tao Te Ching in his Bibliography. All use the same system of numbering chapters that he uses, facilitating comparisons and contrasts between and among different versions. I presume to add another, the Capstone edition for which Tom Butler-Bowdon wrote the Introduction.

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