Laozi and Leadership

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“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy.”

The above is a statement made by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi. I came across it while doing some research on the historical roots of servant leadership, and it struck me as interesting for a few reasons. First a few assumptions under which I’m operating here:

1. Leaders, ourselves included, tend to fall into one of these broad types.

2. Leaders can move from type to type over time, both in a positive and negative sense.

3. Leaders’ actions and attitudes have a direct impact on where on this spectrum they fall.

So with that in mind, it’s interesting to think about where each of us might be. And not where we’d like to be or think we are, but rather, where we actually are in the minds of those we lead.

And further still, what’s our trajectory? Which direction are we moving on the spectrum? And why are we where we are?

Too often we’re eager to take credit for whatever good folks might think of us, while at the same time we’re just as eager to rationalize away whatever negative ideas people might associate with us.

Instead of doing that, we should be asking ourselves hard questions and giving honest answers. If there are some who fear us, why do they? And resist the urge to blame them for it. If some defy, why do they do it? And again, resist the urge to automatically blame it entirely on them. If you’re despised by some, ask yourself why. People rarely despise others without having any sort of cause.

Wrestle with those questions, and then determine how you can best serve those with whom you’re privileged to work, regardless of how you think they feel about you. Serve them well regardless.

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