Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

The Empty Space

October 10, 2018

The Tao tells us:

Thirty spokes meet at the wheel’s axis
The center space makes the wheel useful.
Form clay into a cup;
The center space gives it purpose.
Frame doors and windows for a house;
The openings make the house useful.
Therefore, purpose comes from what is there
Because of what is not there.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

In one of my favorite passages, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of the essential power of the empty space, what the Japanese call yohaku.

In an old Buddhist legend, an accomplished young man came to a teacher seeking enlightenment. He introduced himself, reciting his list of achievements as the master poured tea. As the man talked on, the master continued to pour until the tea spilled over the sides of the cup.

“Stop!” said the young man. “Can’t you see what you’re doing?”
The old master smiled, eyes twinkling as he replied, “You cannot fill a cup that is already full.”

The young man was full of himself, full of ego. To learn anything new, he would have to empty his cup. Likewise, to keep learning and growing, we must empty ourselves of preconceptions, suspend judgement, clear away the clutter of our minds. This is the vital lesson of yohaku.

Yohaku is the Japanese term for the “white space” or background in an ink painting. This space is essential, adding balance to the whole. An expression of yin, the “empty space” so much a part of the Tao, it is the space of insight, inspiration, and creativity..

What about you:

Do you have enough space in your days?

Where do you find your yohaku?
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The Tao of Balance and Self-Respect

August 11, 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

The Tao lesson of respect is holistic. We must first respect ourselves before we can respect others. And respect is an ongoing process as each day, each interaction, can bring us this lesson on a deeper level.

There are many books, many aps, many websites about leadership. But as the Tao teaches, leadership is a process, a lifelong commitment to self-mastery—and “mastering ourselves takes inner strength.”

In the Western world, we are surrounded by machines, clever, ingenious devices that can locate information, navigate for us, even turn our lights and appliances off and on. These machines can perform many functions.

But they remain our instruments and we must be careful not to let them change the way we see ourselves. Computers can multitask, but neuroscience research tells us that human brains cannot. When we try to juggle too many commitments at once, something valuable gets lost in the process. And conscientious people too often fall victim to compulsive work habits, treating themselves like machines, pushing themselves to finish a job while denying themselves vital nourishment, rest, and recreation. This unhealthy paradigm is out of harmony with nature. It is not the way of Tao.

The Tao upholds the wisdom of nature, the vital principle of balance. In my garden, with too much sun and too little water, plants can die of drought. But the opposite is also true: too much shade and too much water are equally unhealthy. And each plant has its own needs, its own sense of balance. Tomatoes need at least six hours of hot sun a day, while more delicate plants will wilt from that much sun.

In the garden of life, you, too, have your own needs for nourishment, rest, and recreation, sunlight and shadow, yin and yang, action and contemplation.

Living the Tao means respecting your own need for balance while respecting the needs of the people around you. Yin and yang, sunlight and shadow, self and other—all part of the dynamic harmony of life.

What can you do to affirm greater balance in your life today?
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Cultivating a Community of Trust

July 21, 2018

Cultivating community is like cultivating our gardens
The Tao Te Ching tells us:

Cultivate community
Where people are neighbors
And life is in balance.
. . .
Weaving together
The fabric of peace.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80

We live in an increasingly confusing, challenging, and stressful world. Many people spend their time frantically multitasking, dashing around, trying to keep up. Although connected 24/7 on the Internet, we are feeling increasingly disconnected from ourselves and one another. Over 40 million Americans have anxiety disorders, 16 million suffer from depression, and the annual suicide rate has increased by 24 percent.

As the Tao reminds us and current psychological research confirms, we need community, people we can count on, people we can trust. A community of trust is essential to our mental and physical health (Umberson & Montez, 2010).

Decades ago, more people knew their neighbors. With less mobility, they had people nearby they could call by name, exchanging greetings and the local news, people to do favors for each other, to celebrate with, to share the harvests from our gardens, to count on for mutual support. But now many people spend more time on Facebook than with personal friends, more time on text and email than actually talking face to face. I see people walking down the street--even crossing the street--staring down at their phones, or couples out for dinner together, yet disconnected, each staring down at a phone. Our sense of community is eroding away and with it our sense of trust.

Yet we can help bring it back. And it doesn’t take much. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that “micro-moments” of warmth and connectivity shared with another individual can dramatically improve our health, reducing chronic inflammation, building physical and emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2013). These micro-moments of connection can be shared not only with close friends and family members but the grocery store clerk or anyone else you encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that’s all it takes.

We can make a difference, cultivating a community of trust with small daily actions, as we would cultivate a garden. To heal the stress and anxiety in our world, we can begin by practicing these micro-moments, reaching out to connect with the people around us.

How can you begin building your own community of trust today?
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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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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