Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

The Tao of Inner Strength

June 29, 2018

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

Analyzing others is knowledge.
Knowing yourself is wisdom.
Managing others requires skill.
Mastering yourself takes inner strength.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33

Descriptions of leadership usually refer to the leader as manager, strategist, commander-in-chief, emphasizing instrumental skills of communication, planning and problem solving.

But beyond these skills, beyond externals, is the one essential strength: knowing ourselves.

“Know thyself” Socrates taught in ancient Greece and as the Tao Te Ching reminds us, effective leadership requires us to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, and strive to become more balanced, more centered more whole.

Only then can we meet our inevitable challenges without being reactive, without falling into excesses of ego—fear, anger, and defensiveness. Only then can we see more clearly, act more wisely, responding to the energies around us from a center of balance within us.

How can we develop our center of balance? The answers come from sources as old as the Tao Te Ching, as new as research in neuroscience: from a commitment to contemplative practice.

Contemplative practice is more vital than ever today. The chronic stress in our world can put us on constant alert, blocking our vision and compassion for ourselves and those around us. Unable to focus or be fully present, we can become increasingly defensive, making reactive, hasty decisions that only increase the suffering within and around us.

Neuroscience research has shown how a contemplative practice cultivates mindfulness, enhancing our cognitive function, strengthening those areas of the brain that regulate emotion.

Mindfulness brings us greater clarity and balance while improving our capacity to respond empathically to the people around us (Hölzel, Lazar, Gard et al, 2011; see also Goleman, & Davidson, 2017). And it doesn’t take much. Research has shown significant results after only two months of practice (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013).

How about you? Do you have your own contemplative practice? If not, you might begin by checking out one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s short mindfulness meditations on Youtube.

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Beyond Theory X

June 12, 2018

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

With the best of leaders,
When work is done,
The project completed,
The people all say,
“We did it ourselves,”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17

The Tao remind us that leadership involves bringing out the best in people. Unfortunately, some companies still treat clients like commodities and employees like replaceable parts. This is what management scholar Douglas McGregor called “Theory X,” a hierarchical approach to management that considers the institution more important than the people within it (McGregor, 1960, p. 50). In a corporate version of the caste system, micro-managers look down on workers, expecting them to mindlessly follow orders, subordinating themselves to the “common good” or profitability of the corporation.

For leaders who follow the Tao, such an approach is ridiculous. The Taoist vision is holistic: we cannot separate the parts from the whole. For Tao leaders, the individual members are the institution. And current research supports this Tao vision, showing that positive work cultures are far more productive (Seppala & Cameron, 2015).

Reducing employees to mere functionaries not only stunts their growth as human beings but makes the institution stagnate as well. By increasing positive emotions and well-being, supporting the personal and professional growth of the people around them, a Tao leader builds the health of the institution. Just as a lake is the sum of many drops of water, an institution is only as healthy as the individuals within it.

What about you? How healthy is your organization?
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When Respect is Missing. . .

June 2, 2018

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The Tao Te Ching tells us:

When people lack respect,
Trouble follows.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 72

The Tao remind us of the subtle energies that make up all existence. Consciously or unconsciously, people sense these energies and know when respect is missing, when they are being devalued. Morale suffers. Productivity declines. A company that does not respect its employees and clients will not keep them. An atmosphere that lacks internal harmony invariably drives people away.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I worked in a new Creole restaurant in Santa Monica. With its spicy food and upbeat atmosphere, the restaurant made a promising start. The waiters were aspiring actors who would often dance, burst into song, and exchange lines from popular shows. Working as cashier was a pleasant diversion from my studies.

But then then restaurant owners had an argument and stopped speaking to each other. Things fell apart. First we didn’t get our paychecks on time. Then the customers stopped coming.

“How did they know?” I wondered. The place looked the same, the staff was the same, and the food hadn’t changed. But something was wrong with the energies. In three months, the little restaurant closed its doors. The lack of respect between the owners had destroyed it.

What about you? Are the energies at your workplace respectful or disrespectful? How can you tell—and is there something you can do about it?
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Respect and Harmony

May 21, 2018

Nature offers dynamic lessons of harmony
The Tao Te Ching tells us:

Respect increases respect
Creating Essential Harmony.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 49

To say there’s a lot of disrespectful behavior in our world would be an understatement., Too many people react mindlessly, driven by fear, defensively shaming and blaming others, which not only builds walls of resentment but keeps us from solving our problems.

Lao-Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching during the warring states period in ancient China, a time of massive social and political upheaval. His courageous response to the chaos around him was respect—for self, others, and the cycles of nature.

The wisdom of Tao is pragmatically idealistic. Instead of surrendering to fear and reinforcing the violent status quo defining life as an endless power struggle, Lao-Tzu realized that our response to a situation makes all the difference. “What is”—the current state of things—does not need to continue, for the Tao teaches that life is a dynamic process.

The Tao reminds us that we are not passive victims of circumstance. “What is” can become “What may be.” We can begin a new cycle of creation at any time by acknowledging and redirecting the energies around us.

As a Tao leader, you, too, can respond to a difficult situation with courage and resourcefulness. Respecting the dynamic process of life, you can discover innovative solutions and create greater harmonies by responding with respect for yourself, for others, and the process of life itself.
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The Power of Trust

May 7, 2018

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The Tao Te Ching tells us:

Who gives from the heart to all the world?
Only one who leads with Tao.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 77

In this competitive, often confusing, world that emphasizes aggressive sales tactics and short-term economic gain, many leaders rise and fall with the cycles of change.

Those who rise above this competitive struggle draw upon deeper principles, inspiring trust and commitment in the people around them. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner found in their classic management research with nearly two thousand managers in North America, Mexico, Western Europe, Asia, and Australia, what people most desire in a leader is credibility, the ability to trust their leader--an atmosphere of mutual respect (Kouzes & Posner, 1993).

Without respect, life is a crazy roller-coaster ride from one crisis to the next. Relationships remain superficial and some people in power lack empathy, using other people as a means to an end.

Unless we can work together respectfully, the alchemy of cooperation and creativity cannot exist. Without the trust that respect engenders, institutions stagnate, for people lack the will to reach out and explore the unknown.

What about you? How can you nurture greater trust around you, leading with heart and affirming the inclusive and compassionate spirit of Tao? Think of one small thing you can do today—take a deep breath and be mindfully present, slow down and listen, or show your appreciation for at least one person today.

Together, we can make a difference. Small actions add up. As the Tao reminds us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64). I encourage you to take that step today.
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The Power of Respect

April 26, 2018

Living respectfully is an essential leadership principle much needed today. Psychologists have called it the key to personal power. Psychologist Jerry Lynch, who coaches Olympic athletes, says that “your real power as a person comes when you relate to others from your heart rather than your head.”

Our energies contract when we concentrate on ourselves and the impression we’re making. The Tao tells us to reverse this direction, to let our energies flow out from our hearts in greater respect and appreciation for the people around us.

The Tao tells us:

Tao leaders lives close to nature.
Their actions flow from the heart.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

Instead of self-consciously posing and performing, Tao leaders concentrate on others. Remember this lesson in your interactions. Take time to listen, observe, and discover the spark of greatness in the people you know. As a Tao leader, you can inspire others by making that spark come alive.

How can you use the power of respect in your life today?
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The Wisdom of Winter

April 14, 2018

The Tao Te Ching reminds us to honor each season in our projects and our lives. Yet in Western society, it seems we recognize only three seasons in life: spring, summer, and fall, the beginning, middle, and end. The wisdom of Tao reminds us of the fourth: the season of winter, during which little seems to be happening.

Throughout the natural world, in the winter months, many plants are dormant, looking apparently dead. But beneath the surface, within the earth, a great deal is going on. My Japanese maple tree stores up energy for a spring of rebirth while the flowering quince brings forth the earliest blossoms.

Winter is a natural time for slowing down, for contemplation. At the end of any project, a wise leader pauses to take stock, to go over our notes, to recall what went well and what needs work, learning from the experience. This final phase is essential so that our new beginnings can be more successful. Tao leaders bring forth deep wisdom from the roots of winter to initiate a spring of new possibilities.

The Tao reminds us to:

Hold to this timeless pattern
Throughout the time of your life,
Aware of the eternal cycles,
The essence of Tao.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 14

How can you use the wisdom of winter in your life?
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Patience and Process

April 6, 2018

The Tao affirms the wisdom of patience and process, a lesson that can be difficult for highly motivated leaders.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, my friends used to grow beautiful plants from avocado seeds, so I tried it myself. I planted a seed in a clay pot, watered it every day, and waited.

Weeks went by. Nothing. Finally, I dug it up to see what was happening. The seed had sprouted, put forth roots, and was nearly ready to emerge, but my impatience killed the plant.

We need patience to see projects through to completion. Different projects, like different plants, have their own growth cycles. Green beans spring up quickly in my garden while carrots take much longer to grow.

We can also become impatient with problems, eager to solve them quickly. Yet the wisdom of Tao reminds us not to rush, for rushing puts us in a stress reaction, narrowing our vision and preventing us from thinking clearly.

As the Tao Te Ching reminds us:

The greatest skill is developed gradually,
The greatest music rarely heard.
The great Tao is without form,
Elusive, undefinable,
Yet the source of all life.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 41

The next time you find yourself rushing when you’re trying to solve a problem or becoming impatient near the end of a project, take a cue from the Tao. Pause for a moment, take a deep breath. Perhaps even take a short break. Then come back, with new perspective and fresh energy to see the process through.
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The Lesson of Ma-Ai

April 1, 2018

There’s a Japanese word, ma-ai, the distance in time and space between two people, two events, two energies. The martial art of aikido relies on the interval between action and response, between one person’s energies and another’s.

In our lives, as in the martial arts, ma-ai is key. Moving too soon is just as unproductive as waiting too long. We can use the wisdom of ma-ai to look for the larger patterns, recognizing when to pause, when to move, when to blend our energies with those around us.

As the Tao Te Ching reminds us:

The wise leader knows
When enough is enough


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 9

There are intervals of ma-ai in all areas of life: the rhythms of yin and yang, action and contemplation, figure and ground, society and solitude. In our gardens, ma-ai is the space plants need to grow at their best. Different plant species each have their own ma-ai. And so it is with difference individuals. In my life, after a busy day at work, I find pleasure in a quiet evening at home. After a day working alone at my desk, I enjoy the exhilaration of a good workout.

Ma-ai keeps us from polarization and going to extremes. Committee meetings are essential for communication and shared governance, but too many meetings can wear us down. Self-care is essential, but so is compassion for others. A Tao leader remembers the importance of balance.

Is there an area of your life that could benefit from the lesson of ma-ai?
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Changing Conditions: The Wisdom of Flexibility

March 28, 2018

The Tao reminds us that we live in a dynamic universe, that wise leaders recognize and move with change. Leaders make foolish mistakes when they become fixated on the past, using old strategies in new situations, not realizing that times have changed.

The Tao Te Ching encourages us to be more mindful and flexible, saying:

Unable to bend,
The tree will break.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76

There’s a term in neuropsychology: “to perseverate,” which means to continue performing an action even when it no longer produces the desired result. For example, some laboratory animals continue to press a lever for food even when food is no longer delivered. Stuck in an old behavior pattern, they cannot adjust to a new situation.

How often do we humans perseverate as well, behaving in a way that worked in a previous job or relationship but is totally out of place in this one?

Recognizing the dynamic cycles of Tao, we can take actions appropriate to the context, aware that the context is continually changing.

What is one way you can use the wisdom of flexibility in your life?

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Selected Works

Nonfiction
"A most helpful book for finding both your passion and your calling for life."
--Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D., author of Love Is Letting Go of Fear
Spiritual
"A simple and comprehensive vision of personal and planetary peace...Dreher's examples work as meditations as well as road maps"
--Minneapolis Star Tribune