Letting Go: The Taoist Canoe

Posted by jlubans on October 22, 2013

Caption: A calm moment on the Rio Grande, 2011.
I often reflect on what the Tao has to say about leadership and working*.
One of the strangest paradoxes is the Taoist’s use of “wei wu wei” (“doing not-doing.“) When my students discuss this puzzle, they often interpret it as being passive, “going with the flow”, if you will. Letting things happen, like the tide washing over a rock.
Actually, the concept is much closer to what happens in a different kind of flow, the psychological and physical states of “flow”.
“Doing not doing” is on display when a musician (or an athlete) enters a “state of body awareness in which the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action.” The greater the musician, the more effortless his music. The better the athlete, the easier appearing her performance.
This state of flow, of non-action, also happens at work when someone is encouraged and given the resources to engage work at the highest level. The worker’s mastery of the task appears effortless; yet it is the highest level of working, of acting.
Not-doing is not blowing off a job. It is doing a difficult job so well that it looks easy.
What does this have to do with leadership? A lot. A worker can only engage a job at the flow level through the necessary training and resources to do the job. Withhold one or the other, frustrate the worker. A good leader enables others to work without effort.

I am preparing to canoe on the Rio Grande in Texas’ Big Bend National Park. My paddling technique needs work, a lot of it!. The best paddlers paddle smoothly, in brief strokes. There’s no “digging” into the water, no wasted energy. The canoe tracks straight in flat water or zigzags in white water dodging rocks. The best paddlers can slip out of raging water into the safety of an eddy, spinning the canoe 180 degrees.
When I canoe, the boat moves to the right, every third stroke is a correction. The correction may send the boat too far left. Another correction. Not a pretty picture, but I keep trying. I have learned a new non-action stroke: The “stationary draw”. When I’ve survived a rapid, I look for an eddy in which to park. As I angle toward the eddy line, and the canoe crosses it, I put my paddle into the water and let it stand; the water rushing behind the boat and my stationary paddle turn the canoe, so that I am no longer going downstream; rather, after a few forward strokes, I am now facing upstream in calm water. Non-action in action. Whew!
I slide the paddle into the water; I yield to the water. Bossing not bossing; unbossing! When I lead, I let go, I yield to the staff.
Like the Tao has it: “…. leading and not trying to control”.

*Source: Tao Te Ching. A New English Version, with Foreword and Notes, by Stephen Mitchell. NY: HarperPerennial, 1992.

If your library does not have a copy, Leading from the Middle, can be ordered from Amazon.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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