If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
— Tao Te Ching, Verse 57 (Stephen Mitchell translation)
Why is human-hearted leadership necessary, especially now in 2020?
We are witnessing unprecedented divisiveness and polarization in the world today. We see this as division, anger, cancel-culture, protests, and the ever-widening gap between the Left and the Right. The worst manifestations of division result in prejudice, oppression, control, violence and murder.
The Tao Te Ching offers important insights about how we can improve our current state in the world. Too many people are only looking out for “Number One.” We are a society that has lost control of its collective ego. The need for validation, recognition, fame, accumulation, and power is out of control. We need to correct this egotistical imbalance.
Our respective societies need to build bridges between polarities that connect the middle-ground. This will help us realize that we all want the same thing: Freedom.
Fear, hatred, anger, and rage stoke the flames of divisive social and moral polarities.
We are living in a constant state of outrage. So long as polarizing sides are antagonistic in this battle of egos, there can be no yielding.
Yet change can happen where you stand. I am reminded of a courageous individual in 1989. A man carrying grocery bags stepped in front of a moving army tank in Tian’anmen Square. One person placed himself in the way of oppressive power, and in so doing, created a bridge towards the middle-ground.
We are too busy in our modern, hyper-connected, mobile, and social-media-driven lives.
Busy has become the badge of productivity, but that’s another story. In our quest for more, and not ‘having enough time,’ we are ignorant of the truth. In our busy-ness, we contend for what we believe to be right, asserting our point of view on Twitter or Facebook. It becomes normative to remain unconscious of our beliefs, never questioning why. We remain oblivious to other possibilities, distracted by our 24/7, immediate-response-required lives — if we stand up for our beliefs at all.
We no longer see the majesty of the world.
We are glued to our cell phones, rarely looking up even in conversation or social gatherings. Cell phones are an incredible technological marvel, but they also come with a huge cost. Our phones come with a battery of apps, each demanding and designed to hold our attention. The time we spend on our phones drains our precious willpower and concentration. Once we pass that point of over-stimulation, we loose our ability to live in self-conscious awareness.
Can you see the middle-ground for the trees?
Between two sides of any argument exists a middle-ground. I also refer to this as the condition for which both sides are fighting from. This is a strange paradox the more you think about it.
Two people can get heated in argument because it would seem neither can agree on what they want and who is right. Dig deep into the origin of the argument and you will find that they want the same thing. What’s different is how they think they need to act, or what they think needs to happen to achieve the desired result. The reason for the argument is usually based in what each person believes as seen through the lens of their core values, and morals.
How do we solve the problems of division, controversy, and endless argument?
This is not something we can change at the surface level. For example, let’s consider a few of the problems we are witnessing on Facebook:
- Fake news
- Problematic algorithms
- Governments and radical groups using advertising to sway voters and manipulate democratic elections
- Facebook AI and human monitors blocking a user for what they deemed a racist comment, when the conversation may have been an honest discussion about the problems of racism.
What would happen if Facebook were to shut down tomorrow? Most users would double down their usage on other platforms, or join the next iteration of Facebook as soon as something new filled the vacuum.
This is a predictable pattern of human behaviour.
Social media AI works to provide us the content we think we want to see and works to create addiction with likes or claps. With every new like or comment on our posts we receive external validation and another hit of dopamine. This problem runs deep, like water eroding the rough surfaces of riverbed rocks over time. It may take decades or centuries to smooth over the sharp edges until you can walk across the river bed without cutting the soles of your feet.
We can’t change someone’s opinions or beliefs in an argument when tensions are sharp like the jagged edges of rocks. We need to get closer to people and get to know them. We need to interact and discover their needs and wants and then help them understand our needs and wants. The closer we get to another person, the harder it is to dislike them. This is how we move from dislike to disagreement, and then from disagreement to a discussion. This is how we erode the jagged edges of our initial, polarizing interaction.
Whatever our differences, can we agree to try and figure out why we are so opposed to each other?
Wouldn’t it be great if changes like this were easy to teach; to share with other people, to model, and to lead from?
This form of personal leadership — of leading with an open, humane heart — is a transformation of your identity. You need to be the change, first, if there is something that you want to see improved in the world. If you are already that change, great, but if you aren’t, then you need to do the work before you can be an example for others.
Personal growth requires work — self-work. It requires regular practice to develop new skills, including open-heartedness. The practices I teach is the AIR Process. You can read about it in my article, “Self-Sabotage is the Shame-Filled Mistake of Personal Development.”
Self-Sabotage is the Shame-Filled Mistake of Personal Development
How to Expand Your Comfort Zone and Improve Your Life by Using this Simple Process.
Here is a summary of the AIR Process:
- Attention: Put your conscious attention on what you want to change;
- Intention: Connect with emotions that strengthen your resolve and make it easier to practice your new habit, and;
- Repetition: Regular and conscious practice of your new habit, behaviour, or routine to pattern your desired change.
One aspect of my character I wanted to improve was how to be less contentious — how to be less argumentative and how to stop trying to win arguments. This was and is still a challenging practice. I have slipped up and fallen back into old patterns, but I rebound faster each time. I have discovered that my emotional intentions are vital in this process. When I remind myself of my core values — acceptance, impact, and joy — it’s easy to turn my attention to my practices (repetition) of non-contentious ways of dealing with an argument.
Resolve to be the change that you want to see in the world.
With constant and public practice, you will be an example to others. When people see you calmer, more joyful, less reactive, compassionate and less argumentative, they will want to know what you know. This is the moment when someone might follow your lead, instead of following you.
There’s no app for resolving our differences.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a technology that made the problems of division, discord, injustice, and social unrest disappear?
Downloading such an app, were it to exist, would only add fuel to the fire. The problems we are witnessing are rooted in human behaviour. How we are acting out is exacerbated by technology. Social media AI and algorithms supply an individual’s news feed with exactly what the individual thinks they are choosing to see. The reality is that social media AI is designed to fulfill the needs of advertisers and to create an addiction to the platform. In this case, we can’t use the system we are using to solve the problems of that same system.
There is ancient wisdom which makes plain what we have lost in our modern age.
This wisdom is not religion, dogma, or ideology. The Tao Te Ching teaches a way of personal leadership as a set of dynamic, organizing principles observed in the natural world.
The wisdom of the Tao Te Ching can be difficult to understand.
Sometimes it reads as out of step with the times (depending on the translation you are reading). I may sound too poetic or metaphorical, or appear too simple in its word use yet paradoxical in meaning. While only 81 short verses, each less than a single page, the text requires time spent in contemplation and re-reading to receive its wisdom. Having read and re-read the Tao over the last 20 years, I discover something new each time.
If you’ve read the Tao Te Ching, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Given its brevity — you could read it in 30–45 minutes without much thought — you might assume the content is of little value. Yet this is the elegant beauty and simplicity of wisdom and aphorisms — much can be expressed in very few words.
The project I am currently working on is to contemplate and apply my understanding of these universal truths — these acute observations about the natural world — to personal leadership. The Tao Te Ching teaches us many lessons about how we can live in harmony with each other when we pay attention to how things work in the natural world. Because of our ego, we often forget that we are a natural organism on this planet. We are as much a part of the natural order as a dog, a tree, a mosquito, a whale, and an amoeba.
As humans, we believe we can control nature
When we try to control nature in a way that causes long-term or irreparable damage, we show our disrespect for all life on this planet, including our own. We act out of alignment with the natural order — what we would call yin and yang.
We see this happening all over the world thanks to careless and corrupt governments. Brazil is destroying the Amazon rainforest and killing its many Indigenous peoples. The United States is pulling out of international climate agreements and clear-cutting environmental protections. We have driven species to extinction, with many more on the brink. The rate at which we are polluting the air is causing the glaciers to melt at a speed never seen before in recorded history.
We fail to realize how the natural world controls our existence.
The more we consume of the natural world, without care for balance in the form of sustainability, the greater the probably that nature will remove us. That is unless we fail to manage social strife and violent aggression, leading to a world war and annihilation.
Remember my metaphor of water flowing across jagged rocks and in time smoothing over the sharp edges? Contrast that with humanity’s disregard for the health of the planet and lack of respect for the dignity of other human beings. We must not continue to support the jagged edges, the discord, or the disconnect between each other.
We need to find a way of being that is more like the flexible and yielding nature of water. Water doesn’t need to force or control. It finds its way down, through, over, into crevices, and wears down obstacles in its path without regard for time. Water has the power to be both flexible and yielding. This is one of the lessons that the Tao Te Ching offers about how we can lead ourselves.
How to Lead Your Life Outside the Ego
Since May this year, I have been studying and contemplating the Tao Te Ching. This is the foundation for my evolving philosophy and the leadership book I am writing. I started with five translations and recently bumped it up to eight. I plan to complete the remaining verses by the end of October. Once I have reviewed my notes (currently at 180 pages, but I expect over 300), I can start writing the first draft.
My goal is not to rewrite the Tao Te Ching. Instead, I want to mobilize its wisdom and insight to develop a humanitarian philosophy. This will be a ‘Way of Leadership’ towards a harmonious society and a humane evolution of critical thinking — free of dogma, ideology, religiosity, and spirituality.
So how do I impart this leadership philosophy in a way that can be practiced and shared by others? When I read the 56th verse of the Tao Te Ching, seven lines jumped out at me. They serve as the foundation for what I am calling,
The 6 Principles for Cultivating Open-Hearted Personal Leadership
As mentioned above, I am working with eight translations. You can imagine that each one offers a different point of view. Here are those seven lines from Derek Lin’s version of verse 56:
Close the mouth
Shut the doors
Blunt the sharpness
Unravel the knots
Dim the glare
Mix the dust
This is called the Mystic Oneness
The last words, “Mystic Oneness,” are also translated as the primal or mysterious identity or mysterious sameness. Given the context of the entire Tao Te Ching, I interpret this line to be the practice of,
Silent consciousness and contentious integrity.
To practice this form of integrity, you need a set of principles to live into — rather than a set of rules to follow. I see this as a way of life (‘Tao’ in translation means a ‘way’ or a ‘path’). You develop contentious integrity with conscious and regular practice of these six principles. No principle exists in isolation. Each principle overlaps and supports the others creating a whole.
I won’t explain how I transmuted the first six lines into my 6 Principles in this article. That will come in a future article (or in my book). For now, I will say that the 6 Principles follow the same order as the first six lines in translation, above:
- Witness with Impartiality
- Flexible Yielding
Here is the link to the 1st Principle of Non-Contention:
What Happens When You Don’t Participate in Arguments or Controversy?
Practicing the Principle of Non-Contention to Cultivate a More Loving Humanity
These leadership principles are not about how you direct or lead others.
Instead, these are personal principles for living. This is how you can lead your life with integrity and authenticity that respects the oneness of humanity. Open-hearted leadership is not a cliché or a trend. It is not an off-hand declaration, like some New Year’s Resolution, “I’m going to be more loving, compassionate, and understanding in 2020.”
There is no quick fix for humanity.
No app can repair the challenges we face, together, as humans. We must be mindful of simplistic personal development promises of life-changing solutions that are sold to please the ego. You can buy the program and invest time and effort. You will see a change, but will it be the improvement you were seeking? We need to see beyond the superficial and go deeper for insight where we see the connection to all things, where we see our connection with humanity.
Open-hearted leadership is not a program or a solution. It is a way of life that requires silent consciousness and contentious integrity — the personal responsibility to lead yourself to be the change you want to see in the world.