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Toon-Te-Ching: Verse 17

Welcome to this installment of the Toon-Te-Ching. We are taking each one of the 81 verses of the Tao-Te-Ching, pairing it with a toon and connecting the teaching to our work life.

Verse 17

With the greatest leader above them,

people barely know one exists.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one,

no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest

and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say,

“We did it ourselves.”

Great leaders shift the focus away from themselves. Think about what you’ve been taught about great leadership. Were you taught that it’s good if your team ‘barely knows you exist?’ Were you taught to ‘speak very little’? Were you taught that a desired outcome is to have people say ‘we did it ourselves’?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins coins the phrase Level 5 leader, as one who puts their ambition in the organization, not themselves.

“Level 5 leaders are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.” - Jim Collins, Good to Great.

Great leaders don’t lead in order to be judged. “How will I ever get promoted if I lead this way? No one will know it was me! I won’t get credit for it!”

Most of our school and work-life conditions us to show how good, capable, and valuable we are. Most of us are not taught to fade into the background, we are taught that people should know who we are! I was coached early in my career that I needed to go make sure everyone knew who I was and what my accomplishments were. My weakness was cited as ‘lack of self-promotion.’ <cringe> I went and tried to learn how to self-promote. <double cringe>

What if we let go of leading in order to be judged? Forget the promotion. Forget trying to look good. Take the energy you put into being judged and shift that energy into creating a place for good things to happen.

Stop directing for results, start creating a place where results can happen. Create a place, a container, where people can be successful themselves. Point in a direction, sow the soil, and let go of control. People want to do a good job, let them.

“Stop being chess masters and start being gardeners.” - Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams.

Let people say ‘We did it ourselves’. It’s popular now for companies to seek employee empowerment and engagement. I have many clients who want to know the secret keys to happy, motivated employees. A recipe, a process, or some secret that’s will unlock it. The problem is that they are using the same paradigm to solve the problem, as the one that’s causing it. When we try to chess master a solution, instead of letting it be solved, we compound the problem.

You still need to lead. I coached a leaders once who interpreted “servant leadership” as “I’m not allowed to talk to the team at all, I just sit back and watch everything collapse.” Just to be clear, this is a wild misinterpretation of empowerment. As they let go of their micromanagement, they also let their leadership go with it. You still need to lead. You still need to make sure the environment is ripe for success. You still need to point the way.

Heart Twist. Pay attention this week to how much time you are spending on how you are perceived vs creating an environment for results. Perception management might include things like self-promotion, career development, networking, massaging results, and messaging failures to sound like success. Creating an environment for results might look like securing resources for the team, improving relationships with partner organizations, or making sure the team has clarity on the goal.

Verse Translation: Dyer, Wayne. Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao (p. 76). Hay House. Kindle Edition.



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