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.
Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 2125-2127.
Goleman, D. & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.
Kabat-Zinn, J. Many of his meditation videos are available on Youtube. More information, meditation instruction CDs, and books by Jon Kabat-Zinn are available on his web site, https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/.
Some information in this lesson appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins and Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.