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Leadership and Virtue

“To produce things and to rear them, to produce, but not to take possession of them, to act, but not to rely on one’s own ability, to lead them, but not to master them – this is called profound and secret virtue.” — Lao-Tzu

This represents an approach to leadership that is far too uncommon. Many like to think that it reflects their style but few measure up. Abraham Lincoln also hinted at the underlying issue when he said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” If you are in a leadership position, a position that affords you authority over others, your character is tested through how you perceive and manage yourself, your role, your responsibility. Thinking about Lao-Tzu’s message helps clarify what it takes to be a leader of character.

It is not enough to simply produce things, whatever you produce. You must also rear them, cause them to rise up, to flourish. Are the things you have produced flourishing? To the extent they are not, you cannot be recognized as a leader of character.

Lao-Tzu understood that, as a leader, you are productive, you produce things. The temptation is strong to take possession of everything you produce. Instead, you need to release your production, let it flourish, be sure it contributes to its maximum potential. Should you benefit from what you produce? Indeed you should; but to limit that benefit only to you merely verifies that you aren’t a leader of character.

As a leader, you act but shouldn’t rely on your own ability. Does this mean that you shouldn’t be self-confident, shouldn’t depend on your talents and abilities? It definitely doesn’t mean that. Rather, it means that you need to recognize your interdependence and reliance on those you lead. You can’t produce unless those you lead are productive. You can’t flourish unless those you lead flourish. As a leader of character, you understand that those who follow you can’t rely on you unless you rely on them.

You are a leader of people, not the boss, not the person in charge, not the master of others. Your role is to nurture without inhibiting, guide without controlling, to direct without dictating, to lead without limiting. You are a leader of character, a leader who exemplifies what Lao-Tzu calls, “profound and secret virtue.”

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