The Tao of Leadership


A few years ago I was asked to give a talk on Leadership to a class of HEC MBA students. I hadn’t done that before, and Leadership is an immensely broad topic, so the first thing I asked was what was the most recent topic they had studied. The response The Taoist Leader.

So I’m going to be honest, when I was told that my first reaction was what the hell has Taoism and leadership got to do together – so I looked it up and it all made sense once I read this line:

“The best leader, exemplifying Tao leadership, is one whose existence is barely known by the people.”

There was a whole long section on how the reader is meant to interpret the above phrase and what exactly it means, but, to me, it rang very true especially on how I perceive and embody leadership.

Nelson Mandela said it well :

“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

What, you might be saying? Nelson Mandela was channeling the inner Taoist? Probably, but most definitely he understood what drives the actions of men.

He understood that the power to make men move was two-fold, you had to get them to understand your message in a very personal way if you wanted to align them – not just intellectually, but also emotionally. Liberation from apartheid, freedom for my people, stability, the end to violence, the end of sanctions and a better future for all South Africans were some pretty passionate stuff to start with but some very competing priorities for the two sides.

He knew too, that the real, most powerful leaders lead from behind. He worked behind the scenes – he didn’t give many great televised speechs, but preferred to talk to people. He also was a keen observer. He knew acutely how to bring people together. He knew that to get people to act, you need to understand what made them tick, their passions, their fears, their aspirations and then work on that.

Let me tell you one story, which I think clearly shows he really got it.

  1. The world cup rugby final and only 1 year into democracy – the nation was still tearing itself apart and the future was anything but rosy.

It was South Africa’s first international competition after years of sporting limbo outside the international arena. Against all odds, South Africa made the final. Everything was against them on paper and their players were inferior versus the favourites after years outside the international game. They were up against New Zealand, the reigning world champions and a team of literal giants, with a wing, Jona Lomu, 120 kilograms, 6ft 5, 1m96 who could run the 100m in 10.8s. A beast of a man who had actually just ran over anyone who had gotten in his way. The critics all had it going in NZ’s favor.

Just before the kick-off, a man emerges from the stands, and as he walks, there is an audible intake of breath from the 60.000 people in the stands and the millions watching on TV. It’s Mandela and he is wearing the rugby jersey of the Captain, Francois Pienaar. Softly at first the crowd starts chanting, Nelson, Nelson and then it grows into a massive thunder in the stadium, echoed in all the pubs and homes and shebeens around the country. In one moment, a single man took a country that was divided, a country that many at the time thought was heading to a civil war and united it as one, where anything was possible. Where a man that had spent over 25 years in prison, could don the very sporting symbol of his oppressors and loudly proclaim that it was time to shed differences and become South Africans; for the first time.

Leadership; getting people to pull together around a common goal isn’t as easy as it sounds. It is actually pretty hard. While textbooks might tell us that a company has a strategy and everyone in the company should work toward that strategy as a team and they’ll make the company stronger, the textbooks don’t always tell us that Claire in charge of marketing isn’t really that passionate about opening up the Russian market and rather prefers business trips to Scandanavia or that Joe of operations doesn’t feel that squeezing out two more points of employee productivity to get cash flow up is really worth the fight. Or that Dan in HR is tired of the unions hammering him in hard negotiations and just feels that giving in a little easier might make his life better.

The grind to get people to work as a team is not easy unless you make an effort to get to know the people that make up that team and understand what is driving them individually. You obviously need to work the intellectual side. But playing to ego, playing to passions, playing to morals, playing to character, playing to pride, those are much, much stronger.

So let me give you a really small example of how I used this approach to make effective change in my organisation.

I noted at one point that we were getting our annual report out 6 months after the year-end. The teams involved were all working late evenings and almost every weekend for months to finalise the document. It seemed to me a collossal waste of human capital to have the teams sacrifice time with their friends and family to produce such a mundane document that summarised our year.

The first thing I did was to try understand how the teams involved felt about the work. This included discussions with contributing teams as well so I could get an idea of how this process impacted the entire organisation. The more I talked and asked questions the more I realised this document was seen as life force destructive, and the more I became convinced, that for the good of everyone, I needed to find a solution.

After analyzing the bottle-necks and the information produced, I went into a process of designing a new way of working with the teams involved. I knew vaguely where I wanted to get to, but I allowed them all to co-create the final process. I knew they had to feel like they participated or they wouldn’t own it.

With a new process, defined, we all started the small steps to implementing the new way of working. The end result: we finalised the document one month after the year-end and eliminated all weekend and late night working. Now we have a hard time even imagining how it worked before and I would hazard a guess that most people involved thought it was them who had the idea and had the most impact in the change  and that suits me just fine.

Let me leave you with one last quote:

When the best leader’s work is done the people say: We did it ourselves.” (Lao

One thought on “The Tao of Leadership

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