The best leader leads least

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2011

One of the readings in my Latvia management class will be Marshall’s study of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible* - an odd selection you might think. I came to include it via a touch of insomnia. Sleepless, I was peering around for something to read when I spotted my copy of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.** It reminded me of the Marshal book. You may be familiar with the tiny Tao – the Book of the Way. It is poetical, pithy and paradoxical:

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who don’t know talk.

We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want.

Human beings thrive when least interfered with.

A depiction of Lao Tzu, one with Mother Earth.

As any anarchist will tell you, people don’t like to be told what to do. We really, really don’t like to follow orders.

A principle Taoist concept, Wei, is defined as any “artificial, contrived activity that interferes with natural and spontaneous development.” Think of taxes, performance appraisals and, committee meetings. How much of our workday is Wei?

Paradoxically, if not surprisingly, Wu-wei means the absence of wei. Wu-wei seeks creative and effective use of energy, not defeatist submission. As the opposite of wei, wu-wei has its own agenda. Quoting Marshall: “Instead of being avoided like the plague, work (is) transformed into spontaneous and meaningful play…” Think of the last time you came to the rescue for a patron in desperate need. Not a Wei moment!

For the last three decades more than a few management thinkers have told us, without telling us how, to follow the Taoist way for leadership. I refer to the mysterious claim that after a job well done "the best leader is one about whom the workers say, WE DID IT OURSELVES!" While the promotion of this type of leadership, particularly by proponents of the so-called Learning Organization sounds great, its meaning was and is elusive.

Well before the Learning Organization, Mary Parker Follett offered:
"Supervision is necessary; supervision is resented."
Yet, she championed the boss’ backing off. Recall that she wrote in the mid 1920s and bossism was absolute. She had observed that the best way to do a job was to involve the worker, to use their expertise rather than ordering them about as if incapable of thought. And, she had a much larger view of the workplace as a contributing, even enabling, part of a democratic society. Had she read the Tao?

My students will also read a leadership essay by Follett+; I am hoping they will see the link to Marshall‘s thoughts on Taoism.
*Marshall, Peter. “Taoism and Buddhism” excerpted from his book, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, London: HarperCollins, 1992. Pp. 53-60.

**Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, with Forward and Notes, by Stephen Mitchell, NY: HarperPerrenial 1992 (The Book of the Way (ca. 500 BC), is said to be written by Lao-Tzu, a librarian some say! ) Confucius offered a competing life philosophy to Taoism. In brief: Confucius defined moral obligations between individuals and social systems. It was implicit that man needed to be regulated and an established government was an effective way to maintain order and progress. Taoism was the antithesis to this, alas, prevailing worldview.

+ Follett, Mary Parker, “The Essentials of Leadership” with Commentary by Warren Bennis in Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s, Pauline Graham (Editor) Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996 pp. 163-181
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