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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

The Tao of Inner Strength

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

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. . .

   

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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