Leadership from the standpoint of Taoist teachings is paradoxical or even oxymoronic in nature. A leader intending to apply the teachings should therefore be willing to tolerate the co-existence as apparent opposites, or at the very least be willing to lead in ways not typically thought to be consistent with leadership. If this seems too taxing, one might consider the potential benefits. For one thing, leading in unanticipated and unusual ways may give one a sustainable competitive advantage both in terms of alternative leaders below and competitors leading other organizations. Put another way, going down the rarely trodden path opens one up to being able to use something of value unknown to other people. One could “corner the market” on that asset.
The most well-known Taoist symbol suggests that opposites may not be absolute, and thus as mutually-exclusive as we think. There may be control in letting go, as a white dot exists amid the black. Source: personaltao.com
In the Tao Te Ching, verse 57 is relevant to leaders. “(I)f you want to be a great leader you must learn to follow the tao.” Fortunately, defining the Tao is not necessary. The verse elaborates on how a leader can follow it. First, “stop trying to control.” This entails letting go “of fixed plans and concepts.” Rather than relying on strategy and a marketing concept, for instance, the leader acts in line with the world governing itself. This may sound absurd, particularly if one is enthralled by the concept of strategic leadership. Planning is less effective than moving out of the way and letting the organization run itself. To say that such leadership is rare in modern organizations is an understatement, so we really don’t know whether stepping out of the way is better than strategizing.
Another means of getting out of the way so the people can flourish involves laying off the policies that prohibit. From the text, “the more prohibitions you have the less virtuous people will be.” In other words, the more a leader tells followers what they can’t do, the more the followers will do things that the leader doesn’t want. It may be a bit like trying to squeeze jello in one’s hand. The more you squeeze, the more jello goes through one’s fingers. The prohibitions may be a form of aggression, which results in aggression in reply from the other side. The next line of the verse is, “the more weapons you have, the less secure people will be.” In modern organizations, weapons are typically those of passive aggression. A leader strategizing to squash a potential rival will have followers feeling less secure as well as less virtuous. The aggression could come back to bite the leader, or come to characterize the organizational culture more generally.
In addition to being stable, the followers of a Taoist leader should be self-reliant. According to the verse, “the more subsidies you have the less self-reliant people will be.” A leader should not act in ways that make the followers dependent. This has an obvious implication for government welfare. Citizens should be secure, and thus have the means to sustain themselves (e.g., housing, food, medical care), but beyond that they should be self-reliant. In an organization, followers should be encouraged to think for themselves and take charge of their tasks rather than have a supervisor constantly looking over their shoulders. The supervisor should not allow subordinates to rely on having the boss decide difficult questions. Again, this is counter-intuitive because leaders are accustomed to control rather than “freeing up.”
In terms of more prohibitions resulting in less virtue among followers and more subsidies reducing self-sufficiency, Nietzsche’s philosophy is relevant. To Nietzsche, “thou shalt not” as a prohibition from morality is in actuality aggression from the weak whose instinct to dominate is in hyper-drive. Giving in to the prohibition makes one weak, which Nietzsche characterizes in terms of sickness. The strong are self-confident in their innate strength, hence they are self-reliant. For the strong to be vulnerable to the moral manipulation of the weak who seek to dominate is for Nietzsche a problem to be solved. Strength should not be vulnerable to moral proscriptions. A pathos of distance should exist between the strong and the weak. While the strong naturally give out of their overflowing surfeit, the intent should not be to make the weak dependent. Nietzsche would doubtless agree with the Taoist teachings regarding prohibitions and subsidies. The Taoist leader in turn could benefit from Nietzsche’s point that generosity is not inconsistent with self-reliance.
The verse ends by essentially kicking out the crutches that leaders are wont to use. Let go of the law, or rules, and people will become honest. Toss out economics (presumably including planning), and people will become wealthy. Resist the temptation to appropriate from religion and people will become serene. Perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all, “let go of all desire for the common good and the good becomes common as grass.” Much harm can come from acting in the national or company interest, as the end of general welfare can justify even rather sordid means. Moreover, letting go of desire may be behind letting go of control, whether one controls through plans, policies, rules, retribution, or subsidies.
Perhaps the leader who is willing to let go of the desire to control stands the best chance of achieving control, not through the leader’s own grasping, but, rather, in a self-governing organization. This entails stepping out of the way so the Tao can govern. This, it seems to me, is the essence of Taoist leadership. To be sure, it takes a certain amount of faith—that order can happen even in the absence of policies and plans. In a business sense, one of the rewards for leading on the basis of such faith is being able to forego the costs in terms of time and money that go into making and enforcing strategies, plans and policies.
The question is perhaps whether those things are really necessary, or even constructive rather than detrimental. We mortals put such stock in our little plans and yet perhaps the dynamics of the market and geo-politics ultimately toss us around anyway. The common good may be naturally provided for by those dynamics, while our leaders merely interfere.
Lest it be concluded that a Taoist leader just sits around, doing absolutely nothing, getting out of the way and urging others to do so too is itself an action. “Leading by constantly getting out of the way” may be the operative slogan for such a leader. Considering how much leaders typically don't get out of the way, preferring to interject their own desires as if they were synonymous with the common good, a leader attempting to apply Taoist principles would likely have his or her hands full—continually emptying his own and others’ plates to make room for food that otherwise would not be delivered. In other words, make a good product and get out of the way, rather than “manage” it to death. Even if such a leader does not practice this completely, just getting out of the way to counter what would otherwise be too many policies would be good business.
Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 57. For the translation used here, see http://mattpaul.org/tao/te/ching.cgi?n_verse=57
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.