Trying/Not Trying: the Unboss.

Posted by jlubans on December 23, 2014

Caption: To intervene or not.

“Just don’t do it” goes one so called Zen tip-of-the-week. Zippy, it suggests one of the alternatives to the Taoist’s admonition to act/not act. Some would say, wrongly, this is the hippie/hedon's way - “turn on, tune in, drop out." Not doing is far more.
John Tierney’s “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying
probes the concept of “wu wei”; an allegedly anarchist idea. I use it in my classes on freedom at work. It’s gnarly, appealingly paradoxical. Here’s what I said about the notion in a previous blog on canoeing and letting go:
“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.”
Tierney reviews a new book by Edward Slingerland, “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.”
Slingerland argues and illustrates how Chinese civilizations have tried for millennia to use virtue to help people cooperate and get along. Slingerland is inspired by ancient texts – bamboo slips - discovered in 1993 in the village of Guodian in central China. The text reads like a Taoist paradox (it may well be): “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.” Engaging, at least to me, but what does it mean?
Like the best Theory X practitioners, the Confucians took the pursuit of virtue to the extreme, very likely laying the ethos for generations of Chinese bureaucrats who rigorously adhere “to rules, traditions and rituals, the makings of a Confucian ‘gentleman’”.
I ask my students to consider the Taoist view - the opposite of Confucian micromanaging – that seeks “to liberate the natural virtue within.”
The Taoist’s worldview is as much Theory Y as the Confucian’s is Theory X. Here are a few questions my students discuss among themselves (of course!):
1. The Taoist believes that “the best government does not govern at all.” How can that be?
2. Lao Tzu (a 7th Century BC librarian) recommends “Practise non-action. Work without doing.” What does that mean? What is “real work” to the Taoist?
3. Lao Tzu teaches that the “best ruler leaves his people alone to follow their peaceful and productive activities.” Is it true that “People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature”?

These philosophical notions all relate to the “unboss,” a term I first used in 2006 and have been exploring ever since.
The boss controls, the unboss less so. Tierney includes a quote from psychologist Jonathan Schooler: “Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”
So, if you know your “stuff” - you are as one with your subject - going with your instinct makes good sense, “just do it” (to coin a phrase!). “(A)ctual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”
That’s what really good teams achieve when individuals look out for others and subordinate to a group goal; personal glory is an incidental and often irrelevant after thought, a non-motivator.
Slingerland refers to the 4th century Chinese philosopher Mencius, “who combined the Confucian and Taoist approaches: Try, but not too hard.” Mencius used parables to suggest a middle road. One story is about a micromanager - the heavy handed boss - specifically a farmer who weeded his fields so much, he yanked all the wheat shoots, destroying his crop. “Something natural … requires gentle cultivation. You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves.”
The unboss farmer.

A note from Santa: There is no better Christmas gift for your favorite unboss than a copy of Leading from the Middle. Free shipping at Amazon.

Each book comes with two free weekly blog posts at Leading from the Middle.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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