Management Matters
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Management Matters


The Art of Leadership

Leadership from First Principles for Sustainable Success in Turbulent Times

First Principles in Action

Elon Musk has disrupted two high-tech industries — space and automotive — by reasoning and acting from first principles:

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy.

With analogy we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing.

With first principles you boil things down to the most fundamental truth and then reason up from there.”

Elon Musk didn’t invent this — Aristotle first codified reasoning from first principles in ancient Greece around 350 BC.

Inspired by Elon Musk and Aristotle: What leadership first principles can we find? Let’s explore!

Turbulent Times Yesterday and Today

We live in a time of war, pandemic and economic and social upheaval (2022) and “the rate of change will never be slower than today”.

Compare this with east Asia around 500 BC: continuous wars, severe pandemics as well as tremendous economic and social upheavals during the time when China was formed — the Warring States period.

Looking at east Asia around 500 BC: What useful leadership patterns suitable for turbulent times can we find? Let’s explore!

Starting from Your Stakeholders’ Needs

Enter Lao Tzu who wrote a short playbook for leaders around 500 BC.

“Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is the most lovable of all the great texts: funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing.

Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water.

To me, it is also the deepest spring.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Starting from the stakeholders — individuals, families, communities, societies, and, in our days also teams and organizations — Lao Tzu set out to explore what capabilities are needed for sustainable success in turbulent times.

Focus on Purpose and Integrity

According to Lao Tzu, a LEADER listens and takes people’s views into account, and, based on this, builds and shares a common purpose through conversations — based on integrity.

Purpose is a higher meaning or reason that keeps people united, supporting each other without fear through success and failure.

Integrity is walking straight following your heart and mind, following both your thoughts and your feelings.

Essential Capabilities for a Skilled Leader

Lao Tzu recommends growing the following essential capabilities for moving beyond being a leader towards being a skilled leader able to secure sustainable success in turbulent times:

Heart Mindful: Move beyond separating heart and mind towards integrating thoughts and feelings.

Aware: Move beyond fixed labels and quick judgments towards seeing with fresh eyes.

Integrative: Move beyond resolving paradoxes and trade-offs towards integrating opposite and complementary perspectives.

Wholistic: Move beyond optimizing parts towards harmonizing the whole system based on purpose.

Flexible: Move beyond always following rules towards changing when circumstances change.

Trusting: Move beyond people earning your trust towards trusting people from the start.

Helpful: Move beyond individual wants towards attending to folks’ needs including your own.

Collaborative: Move beyond individual needs and goals towards enabling cooperation based without pressure and control.

Facilitative: Moving beyond pressure and control towards creating conditions for self-organization based on purpose.

Effective: Move beyond efficiency towards effectiveness: maximum outcomes with minimum efforts.

Growing these capabilities enables sustainable success in turbulent times for your stakeholders as illustrated in the following figure.

Important reminder: leadership is beyond what managers do; it is a service provided by potentially all people in an organization and who’s acting as the leader depends on the needs of the current situation.

Leadership Harmonizing with Lao Tzu

Here are a number of leadership models with principles and practices in line with Lao Tzu’s capabilities for skilled leaders. They have all proven sustainably successful — in particular in turbulent times.

Seeing how much these proven leadership models are in harmony with Lao Tzu is a strong indication that Lao Tzu’s capabilities could be considered leadership first principles for turbulent times.

Modern Organizations Harmonizing with Lao Tzu

Here’s a diverse set of sustainably successful modern global organizations from different parts of the world with leadership principles and practices very much in line with Lao Tzu’s capabilities for skilled leaders:

Seeing how much the leaders in these successful organizations are in harmony with Lao Tzu is another strong indication that Lao Tzu’s capabilities could be considered leadership first principles for turbulent times.

Purpose over Pressure

Here’s inventor of Extreme Programming (XP), Kent Beck’s summary for productivity which captures Lao Tzu’s wisdom in a tweet:

“Purpose is a surer path to productivity than pressure.

Pressure keeps knocking you off the path.

Purpose keeps bringing you back onto the path.”

Now, find YOUR purpose, follow YOUR path.

This article originates from an invited talk I gave at the XP2022 conference, June 2022 in Copenhagen. It summarizes my book The Art of Leadership: Purpose and Integrity for Sustainable Success, published by Yokoso Press and available on Medium, Amazon, Leanpub and Google Play Books.

Thanks for your encouragement: Diana Larsen, Alistair Cockburn, Kent Beck, Chet Richards, Rod Leaverton, Goran Skugor, Joern Larsen, Jaana Nyfjord, Mina Boström Nakicenovic, Darja Smite, Joanna Wrona, Eric-Jan Kaak, Chaos and Oceans and Wolfgang Steffens.

You find my work on leadership, strategy and ways of working, e.g. The Art of Strategy, at Yokoso Press, Medium, YouTube and SlideShare.



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Erik Schön

From hacker, software researcher and system engineer to leader, executive and strategizer. Writer: #ArtOfLeadership #ArtOfStrategy