The Tao of Leadership

The Tao of Leadership

If you’ve read any of my blogs before, you know I’m not usually a proponent of the middle ground, of balance. I always lean towards balls to the wall action, extreme time management, playing full-out, and putting my foot on the gas and driving a few nails through it. Whether it’s wisdom, getting older, my spiritual growth, or learning the hard way, I’m starting to understand the benefits of balance. Which let’s not confuse with mediocrity. And really, a word I like better is dichotomy. I’m not really looking for an even mix of work and play, of spiritual growth and financial growth, or being too full or starving. It’s about the push and pull, the opposing forces, knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. And eventually, over time, with intention, finding the sweet spot in the middle where you will thrive.

The classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu, explains the effortless way to live life in order to succeed. It’s about personal discipline, while releasing personal preferences and desires to find that middle ground, the way where the flow of everything is possible. The Tao, the way, is not found at the extremes. For example, you can die by starving to death, or by overeating, just as you can die instantly from freezing temperatures or vaporizing at 3000 degrees. These are obviously extreme examples but think about this in your own life. Is your pendulum swung to far? Science tells us that if we bring a pendulum out 30 degrees and let it fall, it will automatically swing back the other way 30 degrees. It’s simple physics. But this is also a principle of life. How long can you stay at outer extremes? Only for moments. How long can you stay in the middle? Forever. 

It’s the harmony of all the balance points that allows you to maintain the Tao. How much energy are you wasting each moment by swinging between the opposites? If you are in balance then you eat when you’re hungry, otherwise you’re wasting energy overeating or undereating. The further the extreme, the more energy you waste. You just waste a ton of energy the further the extreme. The Tao is in the middle. These forces balance each other and allow you to stay in harmony.

Here’s where the dichotomy comes in. You don’t want to live in the extreme, and yet, the extremes are great teachers. Learn from them. Think about lying. You tell a lie, a simple lie, and then you build up stories around your lie. Then you have to tell more lies to maintain the first lie. You can’t remember who you told the lie to and who you didn’t and the next thing you know you’ve spent so much time and energy thinking about your lie that’s it’s developed a life of its own inside your world.

Here’s another example, when you’re driving your car, and someone cuts you off if you’re out of balance, living at the extremes of your pendulum, then your energy gets pulled towards anger and frustration with the other driver. The individual that lives in the center watches the events unfold, one to the next and maintains the Tao as close as possible. Sure, we all get out of balance. But how quickly can you counter balance? Keeping your sway close to the center is the key.

You wake up each day with a certain amount of energy. How much energy do you want to waste in the swings of life? How much energy, innovation, thinking, and the inability to love is lost each day when you’re so focused on battling each swing of energy? That’s how most people live their life. They life in the extremes, constantly battling against energy and creating a yo-yo effect in all aspects of their life.  

The more you can master the sweet spot of life, the Tao, the more you’ll be able to use your energy to solve problems and innovate on real challenges. Finding the Tao will allow you to live in the moment and truly understand that life is unfolding for us and not happening to us. While I’m no master, here are three steps to take towards mastering the Tao Te Ching:

  1. Mediate. Whatever form of meditation works for you, just do it. There are hundreds of methods of meditation, from simple breathing exercises, to elaborate poses and mantras, to yoga. Find the way that works for you to become more centered. Little secret? Sometimes just having the ability to stop in the middle of the day to meditate is the meditation.
  2. Exercise. Move, walk, run, ski, dance… whatever it is you do, exercise for a least a few minutes five to seven days per week. You don’t need to beat yourself up each day, but you can go for a light walk on your light days and power walk up a hill on your harder days or run. You can have variability in your effort, but the ability to set the intention and hold the exercise habit will grow your ability to focus and build the habit of sticking to your commitments. Movement helps you clear your mind and find the Tao.
  3. You are not your thoughts. You heard that right. We’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating. All those thoughts flying around inside your head all day every day? Those are not you. YOU are the subject, your thoughts are the object. Just like looking at a painting on the wall. You are not the painting, right? Thoughts are energy manifesting. Why does that voice talk in your head? To navigate the world for you. To put context and to try and control the world around you in an uncontrollable world. Control is an illusion. None of us are entitled to anything in this world and can’t control anything in the external world. Or if we try to, we may be good at it for a period of time, but then when life throws a curve ball and we lose control we crumble and can’t recover. So stop. Understand that voice inside your head is not you. You sit behind your thoughts. When you can separate your thoughts from the real you the more clarity you have in life, the more innovation that comes in, the more love you can give and receive, and the more life unfolds exactly how it should for you.

This balancing and counterbalancing to live the Tao is particularly important in leadership. Jocko Willink explains this concept really well in his new book, The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win, with 12 dichotomies that a leader must have:

  1. A leader must lead but also be ready to follow.
  2. A leader must be aggressive but not overbearing.
  3. A leader must be calm but not robotic.
  4. A leader must be confident but never cocky.
  5. A leader must be brave but not foolhardy.
  6. A leader must have a competitive spirit but also be a gracious loser.
  7. A leader must be attentive to details but not obsessed with them.
  8. A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally.
  9. A leader must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent
  10. A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close.
  11. A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership. Simultaneously, that leader must employ Decentralized Command.
  12. A leader has nothing to prove but everything to prove.

The Tao of leadership is not micro-managing, nor is it letting go too much, too fast. Are you getting in the way of your employees and stifling their growth? Are you trying to be involved in every decision and do everything? Or are you completely hands-off and never providing any feedback or accountability? Or are you reviewing every piece of work that they produce and changing it every time? Which extreme do you play in? Hopefully, neither one! The closer you can play in middle, that zone of balance between the two competing forces, then the more efficient and successful your organization will be. The dichotomy of leadership, just like the Tao of leadership, is understanding when to hold the line, when to put consequences in place, and when it’s okay to make exceptions or not push as hard.

Sounds pretty hard, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. People still think leadership is this sexy thing – big fancy office, company credit card, driver, private jets. What people often forget is the grind and the daily problems that come with being a leader. Sure, the fancy office is nice, but none of the “perks” alone are worth it. And a leader who is in it only for those material rewards are in it for the wrong reasons. It’s what happens behind the closed door of the corner office that people don’t see, and I would argue, don’t want to see. That’s okay. But if this type of leadership and responsibility is something that you want then it starts by mastering your personal growth, leading yourself first, and finding the Tao.

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