Tao Te Ching 17 – The Art of Leadership

The supreme rulers are hardly known by their subjects.

The lesser are loved and praised.

The even lesser are feared.

The least are despised.

Those who show no trust will not be trusted.

Those who are quiet value the words.

When their task is completed, people will say:

We did it ourselves.

Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching presents the characteristics of a true leader. It does so by comparing the diverse types of leaders and their leadership styles. In eight short lines, Lao Tzu succinctly outlines both effective and ineffective leadership styles. As you read these words, I would encourage you to ask yourself which type of leader you wish to become.

One night, when I was in Singapore, I came across a book in a hotel nightstand that illustrated this verse of the Tao Te Ching perfectly. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title of the story or the name of the book, but the words made such an impression on me, that I have used it in my training for many years. Below, please find my interpretation of the story.

“In the ancient days, there was strife and despair throughout the land and a great war had begun. One of the regions involved in the war was small and not very strong and because of this the people were fearful. As the battles waged on, the military of this region became very demoralized because they were weak and did not have many soldiers. The emperor, having been told of the rumblings decided to disguise himself as a lowly servant and sneak out of the royal house to see for himself if the rumblings and doubt were true.

Upon arrival at the military camp, the disguised emperor became the servant for a group of senior soldiers. Several of the soldiers kicked and abused him and forced him to cook and clean for them and their animals, oftentimes beating him for their own pleasure. The emperor could have had these senior soldiers killed; however, he knew that would not help his military to overcome their fear of the enemy.

These senior soldiers were very cruel to all the other soldiers and were greatly despised for how they treated everyone.

Other mid-level soldiers would threaten and curse the servant. They had him sleep with the pack animals, but they did not physically abuse him like the senior soldiers had. As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, the soldiers began to permit the servant to warm himself by their fire. The servant would listen attentively as they talked about how the battle was going and about how afraid they were of dying.

The mid-level soldiers were impatient and yelled and cursed their juniors; however, they very rarely physically harmed those they led, and because of this they were not as feared as the senior soldiers.

After a while, the junior-level soldiers began to talk to the servant and realized that he was wise. They began to ask him questions. The servant would answer their questions. He would encourage them by telling them stories of how small armies defeated much greater armies.

Eventually, many of the soldiers, at all levels, began to discuss the suggestions from this lowly servant. As they talked among themselves, they began to see the servant’s suggestions were teeming with wisdom: wisdom that could help them to succeed on the battlefield. And so, it did! The soldiers became victorious time after time—defeating others that surpassed them in numbers and in strength.

Over time, the soldiers embraced the servant as a trusted adviser and had him join them in their meals and drinking. He became the focus of all discussions, and they began to take his advice and recommendations without question.

The night before the battle of all battles was to begin, the servant had a long discussion with the soldiers. As the soldiers listened to the servant, they knew they were prepared for the battle. They knew in their hearts and minds that they could win because whenever the servant spoke to them their spirits were lifted and they felt braver than they had ever felt before.

The battle lasted for days that eventually ran into weeks. When the battle was over, the soldiers from the small region had not only survived, but they had also helped defeat the strongest army of the enemy. Because of their heroism and courage during the battle, they were summoned to appear before the emperor to receive a great reward.

As they marched toward the palace, the soldiers sang songs praising their might and courage. They sang about how they were small and strong and had defeated the great enemy without any help. They continued to sing their praises as they marched into the great hall of the emperor. All the while, no one noticed that the servant was not with them.

As the emperor entered the great hall, the soldiers prostrated themselves before him. They dared not look upon his face, as was the law. When the emperor began to speak, the soldiers heard a voice that sounded familiar to them. How could this be they thought? Many wanted to raise their heads and look around to see if the servant was with them, but no one dared. Surely, they reasoned, even if the servant was with them, he would not dare to speak while in the presence of the emperor.

At that moment, the emperor asked them about the servant. The soldiers became afraid because they could not tell him where the servant had gone or if he was safe. The emperor’s voice became angrier as he continued to question them about the absent servant. The soldiers began to shake, some cried. In unison, they begged the emperor to forgive them for not knowing where their friend, the servant, had gone.

Then, the emperor softened his tone. He bid them to rise and to look upon him. As they did so, they saw the emperor’s smiling face; and in that moment, they realized that it was he who they had abused. It was he who had served them. And it was he who had become their trusted advisor and friend. It was the emperor that had brought them from the depths of fear and despair. It was the emperor that had encouraged them and provided them with the advice that had helped them win the battles.

And in that moment, they bowed their heads, not to the emperor, but to the servant that they had come to know and trust.

As you reflect upon this story and the 17th Verse of the Tao Te Ching, I would encourage you to think about the four styles of leadership that are depicted.

The first style, as depicted by the senior soldiers in the story, is authoritarian, aka autocratic. In the story, these leaders were cruel, uncaring, and physically abusive. At this point, I need to say that I do not believe that today’s autocratic leaders are cruel, uncaring, and physically abusive. That said, however, many autocratic leaders tend to be egocentric, controlling, and can easily resort to manipulation and bullying to get their way. They can be extremely hard to satisfy and can be psychologically abusive to their subordinates. This, in turn, creates a hostile work environment.

The second style is depicted by the mid-level soldiers in the story. They are only slightly better than the senior soldiers. While they were still psychologically abusive, they did not resort to physically harming their subordinates. They too exhibited cruel, uncaring, and ego centric behaviors. Their main weapon to gain control was psychological in nature. They made their subordinates feel less than and unworthy. In other words, they used Psych Ops to coerce their subordinates into submission. This type of behavior, again, creates a hostile work environment.

The third style is depicted by the junior-level soldiers in the story. These soldiers were the first ones who started to treat the servant almost as an equal. It took some time for them to get to know him; but once they did, they accepted him into their group and treated him with kindness and respect. This group was getting closer to becoming servant leaders than the other two groups.

Of course, the emperor portrayed the servant leader in the story. He humbled himself by being a servant. He allowed the leaders to abuse him and to take advantage of him. While no one should allow themselves to be physically or psychologically abused, the story drives home the point that true leaders should put themselves in the same situations as the people they are leading so that they can better understand and experience the difficulties that their organization/teams are experiencing at that time. Just because you worked as a PM, Agile Coach, or developer twenty years ago does not mean that you understand the problems that your people are facing today.

If you really want to know and understand your teams, you need to get down in the trenches with them, work with the same equipment and in the same environment that they do. You need to get first-hand experience of what it is like to work for you and with the leaders that report to you. The absolute worst thing you can do is talk to your teams for thirty minutes and then walk away thinking you know everything they are experiencing.

One of the main take-aways of this story, is that in the end the emperor, aka the servant leader, brought all of these groups together. He did so by serving them, by listening to them, by becoming one of them, and by giving wise understandable advice that was easy to put into practice. Hence, they believed they had done it all on their own.

What else can you do to become a better leader; this chapter of the Tao Te Ching has some answers as well.

Those who show no trust will not be trusted. Trust the people you lead. When your people know that you trust them, they quickly learn that they can also trust you. I like the maxims: In order to be trusted, you must be trustworthy; and in order to be trusted, you must first trust others. How can your people trust you if you do not trust them first?

Those who are quiet value the words. Listen, really listen to your people. Provide a trusting and safe environment where your people can speak openly, honestly, and respectfully about what they want, need, and feel. In my training, I teach my students to use the acronym WAITSM - Why Am I Talking So Much - to help them to remember to be present when they are communicating with their teams. It is important to self-manage how much time you spend talking to your people versus how much time you devote to actively listening. If you are talking more than them, get WAITSM tattooed on your wrist, so you will not forget to let them do most of the talking and you do most of the listening … just kidding about the tat.

If you want to become a leader or improve your leadership skills, I can help. I offer coaching services that are designed specifically for those in leadership positions or those who aspire towards a leadership position. To experience how leadership coaching can help you, schedule a free coaching session by using this link:  https://phoenixrisingtrans4mation.as.me/free-coach-session

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