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Leadership qualities from the Tao te Ching

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on March 28, 2012 at 2:05 AM


The Tao te Ching is an ancient Chinese book of wisdom written in the fifth century by Lao Tzu. The title literally means “The Book of How Things Happen” and it provides simple wisdom for living one’s own life, and also for leading others to a more enlightened state.

There are abundant courses and articles on leadership and accomplishment these days; and a multitude of experts have created success for themselves by teaching other people what it takes to be successful as a speaker who teaches other people to be successful as a speaker who teaches other people to be successful as a speaker who teaches …

Well, you get my point: there’s a lot of information about leadership available but we seem to be lacking in genuine role models of skillful leadership: those who live the lessons every day and teach by example rather than by words. Turning to the Tao te Ching for wisdom reveals a simple and surprising list of qualities that describe the very best leader:  

  • Humble. The Tao repeatedly compares the most powerful leader to the ocean – a body of water that is positioned lower than all other forms of water on the planet, so that it receives and contains all the flow of the less powerful streams. A wise leader listens and holds the output of his/her followers but gives them the credit for all good works. 
  • Nurturing. The wise leader fosters success in other people by helping them discover and grow their own capabilities and by creating a space in which they can safely unfold. 
  • Fluid. In another water metaphor, the Tao suggests that the leader must be flexible and flow through situations and conflicts, yielding when necessary in order to prevent resistance and resentment. 
  • Silent. A truly powerful leader does not use excessive words to teach, but knows how to cultivate stillness in order to allow creativity to arise. When this type of leader does speak everyone listens because the message is always profound and illuminating. 
  • Grounded. According to the Tao the best leader will not engage in or stir up conflict but will simply shine light on controversy and provide clarity in order to restore harmony. This leader knows that conflict is part of the process of growth, but conflict must not be allowed to replace or prevent growth from occurring.

After reading this list you might be catching-on to the overall theme here: true leadership requires transcending the ego and its desire for fame, control, recognition, power, and force. Yet such a leader is rarely found in our organizations, churches, workplaces or government. Think about some of the bosses you have worked for or poiticians who command the stage: many of them are demanding, arrogant, loud, forceful, rigid and judgmental. Based on the teachings of the Tao te Ching, true leadership is rare.

For these leadership qualities are the product of many years of spiritual work consisting of shining the light on the ego and its Shadow and gradually letting go of every obstacle they represent. Anyone who aspires to be a leader in the future or has already undertaken that role, must focus now on spiritual growth in order to begin serving others with true power.

Categories: Spiritual Practice, Lifestyle, Relationships

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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