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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

The Wisdom of Winter

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

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

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

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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The Wisdom of the Seasons

The wisdom of the Tao, like the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, affirms that "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven."


Each season has its own form of beauty. Spring brings delicate plum blossoms. Summer bursts forth with profusions of orchids. Autumn is graced with golden chrysanthemums, and winter brings the strength and serenity of bamboo.



The Tao Te Ching says:


Tao leaders live close to nature.
Their actions flow from the heart.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8


In the wisdom of Tao, the wisdom of nature, every project, every week, every day, has its four seasons: a time to plant and a time to grow, a time to harvest and a time to contemplate. Wisdom means being mindful of the seasons. It is folly to ignore them.


Seeing these patterns in the work week, a Tao leader realizes that Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are not the best times to call a busy office. On Monday mornings, people are too busy getting started with the week, and on Friday afternoons, they're too busy trying to wrap up their work and leave.


As a department chair, it took me a while to learn this lesson. I used to schedule staff meetings with my administrative assistants the first thing Monday morning. But on busy Mondays, these meetings were often cancelled or postponed. Realizing that Mondays are not the best times for long-range planning, I began holding staff meetings near the end of the week when things slow down. An hour after lunch on Thursday became a much better time for reflection and planning.


How can you use wisdom of the seasons in your life?


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The Power of Timing

The Tao Te Ching says:


Tao leaders live close to nature.
Their actions flow from the heart.
In words, they are true;
In decisions, just;
In business, effective;
In action, aware of the timing.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8


Sometimes being aware of the timing means being mindful of others. When a friend is feeling stressed, overwhelmed by too much to do, right timing means being understanding and compassionate, giving your friend space.


Sometimes right timing means following your intuition. Years ago when I was a nineteen year-old college sophomore, driving home from a summer temp job, I passed by the local newspaper office, the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Suddenly the through struck me—"I'm a writer. That's where I should be working."


Without hesitation, I turned my red Volkswagon into the Press-Enterprise parking lot, and walked in the door. "Hi. I'm a writer," I said, "I'd like to apply for a job." Ushered upstairs to the personnel department, I filled out the paperwork and learned that their college intern had given her notice that morning. I was hired on the spot.


Timing. In an instant, some doors can open, leading to new possibilities. When our "actions flow from the heart," we can be intuitively led to right action and right timing.


How have you used the lesson of timing in your life?


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Leading with Ego or Wisdom

We have many varieties of leadership today.
The flashy leaders who focus on themselves with PR, noise, and lots of ego can be thrown off balance by challenging times.


Wise leaders are less about ego and more about vision and process. Unlike their flashy counterparts, they can meet any challenge with strength of character.


The Tao Te Ching tells us:


Tao leaders
Are wise as the ages.
Their depth cannot be sounded,

Yet we can describe their actions:
Mindful, as if crossing an icy stream;
Focused, as in the midst of danger;
Respectful, as if an honored guest;
Fluid, as melting ice;
Honest, as an uncarved block of wood;
Open, as a yielding valley;
Blending, as earth and water.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15


Does one of these qualities stand out for you? If so, how can you cultivate more of it, bringing more of the wisdom of Tao leadership into your life?


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The Tao is Now

The Tao Te Ching says:


The Tao leader
Lives fully in every moment.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 14


Poets and artists have always known this lesson. The Tao moment is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow"—being fully present in the here and now.


Years ago, I learned this lesson in aikido. When we were training, my teacher, Sunny Skys Sensei used to remind students of a Japanese expression: "Tadaima: only now.


We cannot respond well on the mat unless we leave our concerns outside and concentrate on training. Similarly, at work or at home, we cannot respond well unless we are fully present. But being present isn't always easy when memories, worries, and obligations crowd our brains.


If you find your mind being crowded like this, try saying to yourself:


"Only Now."
"I'm here now."


Then take a deep centering breath and be here now,
Living fully in this precious moment.


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What is Your Centering Practice?

The Tao Te Ching asks:

Why do so many people rush about
Reactively losing their balance?
They give way to emotion,
Impatience and haste,
Thereby losing their center.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 26

All the creative leaders I know of have one thing in common: a regular practice of centering.

Committing yourself to such a discipline unites you with artists, innovators, spiritual seekers, and visionary leaders throughout the ages. Many people, like Gandhi, have observed regular periods of silence. Others, like Jon Kabat-Zinn, have a regular meditation practice. Some go for runs, walks in the woods, or practice aikido, karate, yoga, or tai chi—exercises that combine body, mind, and spirit.

What is your centering practice?
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Leadership Begins Within

Wise leaders are not reactive. Even in crisis, they maintain their inner balance.

However events may whirl around them,
They remain centered and calm.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 26

For centuries, the wisdom of the East has taught the lesson of self-mastery. As the Tao tells us:

Analyzing others is knowledge,
Knowing yourself is wisdom.
Managing others requires skill.
Mastering yourself takes inner strength.
. . .
Be present, observe the process.
Stay centered and prevail.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33

Wise leaders stay centered in challenging times because of their commitment to a regular centering practice—which can be daily prayer, meditation, or a physical discipline like yoga, tai chi, or the martial arts.

What is your centering practice?
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