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?
McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Seppala, E., & Cameron, K. (2015, December 1). Proof that positive work cultures are more productive. Harvard Business Review.
An earlier version of this lesson appeared in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.