4. Dear leader, don’t be a savior, please

“This cyclical nature of the seasons of the spirit is counter to our dominant cultural narrative of self-improvement, with its ethos of linear progression toward states of ever-increasing flourishing. It is counter, too, to the world’s major spiritual traditions, with their ideas of salvation and enlightenment.”

Maria Popova, www.themarginalian.org

When you have been working in business for a decade or two (or more, which I have), you learn that the nature of growth in fact isn’t linear. It’s cyclical. The spiral goes upwards, and then downwards. Changes in direction are seldom connected to one person in the organisation. Still every new CEO or boss comes with an often not so subtle promise of salvation - appreciated and expected by the board. 

A wise leader can face the illusion of improvement by moving between two extremes: 

You can embrace and preach the belief that continuous man-made change is necessary and makes the world, your business and human beings better. Capitalism is grounded in this worldview and that’s why walking this talk is what bosses in Western companies usually get paid for. Words like “sustainability” and “kindness” belong to the management-vocabulary nowadays. 

If you realize that change is not a man-made invention, but an inevitable process in the whole universe, you might take a different perspective on leadership. You start to ask questions: Why do I lead others? In what direction should we go? Is there some other meaning with our business than creating economical wealth for owners, myself and hopefully co-workers? How can I ensure that the changes we can control and decide upon will lead to improvements?

Well, the good news is, you can’t. 

You really needn’t hang on to the illusion of improvement. Letting it go can make your life so much easier, not only at work, where the staff probably appreciate it most: People who see bosses come with great visions and leave with unfulfilled dreams tend to get cynical. Castles in the sky are seductive and beautiful (as in my painting above, if I may say so myself) - watching them collapse is exhausting if you have put in effort building them.

Instead, take an ancient Eastern perspective on leadership, for example taoism. John Heider’s book “The Tao of Leadership” (1985) is easily accessible as an introduction. He has kind of translated the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s texts “Tao Te Ching” into modern businesslanguage.

Heider writes that a wise leader is aware of what is going on within people he or she leads, and acts accordingly  - consciousness in the present is significant for a wise leader.

A leader that is not so wise tries forcibly to work in the right way, calculates and speculates with what is right and what is going to happen.

An incomprehensible leader is a rigid moralist, who has strong opinions about what’s right and wrong. This leadership, based on calculation and speculation, often leads to resistance, but people with different opinions are punished. 

Heider writes that the leader’s perception is more important than his or her deeds. That’s why successful leadership can not be practiced through a particular model. If the leader is at risk of losing the touch to the present moment it’s best to let go of all struggle and quite down until one reaches a clear state of awareness.

This sounds familiar to trending terms like mindfulness, meditation, agile leadership, leadership  as a service. But the philosophy of Taoism is more than 2500 years old. The thought that a leader’s job basically is to facilitate the natural movement of things is both liberating and provocative. 

What would happen in your working life if you let go of the struggle and instead go with the flow in patience and compassion?


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