The Tao of Leadership

Sometimes I sit and stare at a blank screen for hours. Not a single creative thought in that cavernous mass of gray matter called a brain. It’s extremely frustrating when I have to come up with a column, especially one that’s actually worth reading.

But approach me with a problem and watch me instantly come alive and spring into action. I don’t always have the answer, but I can always figure out what to do. What path to take. Which questions to ask and of whom to ask them.

I’m like a Problems R Us store.

No wonder I loved being an executive so much. Every day was a new set of problems to solve. It was always something. And problems require action. Engagement. Interaction. For me, that always felt comfortable.

Problem solving is very yang. Aggressive. Masculine.

Writing insightful commentary, on the other hand, requires creativity. Patience. It’s solitary work. It’s passive. And for me, that’s challenging. Uncomfortable. And sometimes, so hard and annoying it drives me nuts.

Writing is very yin. Passive. Feminine.

I used to think I was such a good executive. Maybe even a good leader. Strong. Decisive. Results oriented. I was all about making things happen. Solving problems. Accomplishing goals. Getting the job done. Knocking the ball out of the park.

But here’s the thing. There are times when a leader is better off doing absolutely nothing. Far better off, in fact.

If you study the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, you begin to see the limitations and pitfalls of action and aggression. And you begin to understand the wisdom and insight that come from being passive and patient.

Young male leaders are inevitably heavy on the yang, as I was. But as they mature, effective leaders tend to develop more of a sense of balance. They become more adept at knowing when to speak up and act decisively … and when to sit quietly, listen, and wait.

In college, we heard the term equilibrium a lot. In more than two decades in the corporate world, I’m not sure I heard it once. Granted, it’s rare to find managers that have achieved that sort of stability and balance – where their team or company operates so effectively that you can say the organization is in a state of equilibrium.

But I have worked with a handful of CEOs on one or two management teams that fit that description. And what we managed to achieve was as remarkable as it was rewarding for everyone involved. 

That’s probably why I find it so amusing – in a twisted and cynical sort of way – to hear people talk endlessly about the importance of leadership qualities like emotional intelligence and soft skills. And our sound bite culture inevitably misinterprets that to mean leaders should be more sensitive and empathetic and communicate better.

To me, that’s like boiling down the Tao Te Ching to “do nothing” or the Art of War to “appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak.” It sort of trivializes some very deep and powerful concepts that you can spend a lifetime studying and practicing and come nowhere near mastering.

If you’ve ever wondered what a management consultant does – that’s what I do when I’m not writing – look no further than Peter Drucker, the father of modern management. Drucker helped executives to understand new concepts and see things in different ways. He rarely told them what they should do. The guy was like a modern day Lao Tzu.

Too bad Drucker never was a CEO. He might have been the best. Then again, maybe he achieved that level of balance by writing 39 books. Maybe executives and leaders can tone down their yang improve their yin by writing. Maybe the key to equilibrium is literally at your fingertips. Maybe that’s how Lao Tzu did it.

Writing may be hard, but it’s a hell-of-a-lot more practical for a busy executive than becoming a monk, that’s for sure.