The Taoist Manager

When I was in NROTC in college, we were required to take a few courses in leadership and management. It taught us to think through about how we would address conflict, how to treat people with different personalities, how to gain creditability with subordinates, etc.

What struck me as I read through the Tao Te Ching was that management theory is all about doing and taking action. Managers, or at least “good” managers are incredibly active, always directing and providing feedback and moving projects along.

Here’s an excerpt from a Harvard Business Review piece citing what Gallup believes makes strong manager:

Via HBR: Why Good Managers Are So Rare

If great managers seem scarce, it’s because the talent required to be one is rare. Gallup finds that great managers have the following talents:

  • They motivate every single employee to take action and engage them with a compelling mission and vision.

  • They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.

  • They create a culture of clear accountability.

  • They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.

  • They make decisions that are based on productivity, not politics.

Note the action verbs there: motivate, create, build, and make.

Let’s contrast this with an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching ,which, in addition to its role as a philosophical text, is also a guide for rulers.

The very highest [ruler] is barely known by men.

Then comes that which they know and love,

Then that which is feared,

Then that which is despised.

He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed

Without unnecessary speech,

People say, “We did it!” 

– Chapter 17, Tao Te Ching

The best leaders are the ones who are least known, or at least who make their presence least known. By fading into the background, the people can accomplish things on their own.

Now, this may be analogous to “empowering” your employees (or to use the more recent buzzword, “engaging” your employees), but I’m not sure empowerment management philosophy truly embodies this passage from the Tao Te Ching.

The modern manager or leader would empower employees by giving them clear goals and assignments, but let them figure out how to get the job done.

The Taoist leader on the other hand might not create goals or assignments at all! His employees ideally would not barely he know he exists and may not even know they are actually employees.

If you’re embracing a Taoist philosophy to leadership, you may wonder if leaders or managers are even necessary. I wonder that myself…

Perhaps a Taoist organizational structure would not have formal managers or leaders. Rather, people take on leadership roles naturally and when appropriate. Or, maybe the modern business organization is in itself completely unnatural way of organizing work and labor. Yes, it might be more productive, but productive does not necessarily mean it works with the Tao.

I won’t have the opportunity to practice being a Taoist manager, at least, not in the next few weeks, but if you have a personal example of either an overactive manager or a minimalist, Taoist manager from your work experience, please leave a comment.

  • MarcHamann

    I am someone who has consciously used Taoist principles to lead people, which I will explain in a bit.

    But first I want to reframe the Taoist perspective a bit for clarity. The idea is not to eliminate activity, as it is obvious that the natural order of things has a LOT of activity ( water runs, animals eat, wind blows, etc).

    The key insight is minimalism and economy of effort: you don’t need to push to make everything happen, because things will happen of their own accord most of the time anyway.

    A Taoist manager recognizes that people have their own natural motivations to do things ( help people, accomplishment, competitive feelings, etc), with each person having their own natural motivation profile. The “trick” is just to let each employee take hold of the parts of the organizational goals that work with their natural motivations. This doesn’t eliminate the need for discipline, problem resolution, goal setting, etc. but it means that a lot less energy needs to be expended to accomplish what is needed.

    Micromanagement fails because it doesn’t scale and doesn’t allow the natural motivational flow to do its work. This is the fundamental insight of Taoist leader.

    • Roger Williams

      Totally agree with MarcHamann. As a manager, I have found it is essential to understand the culture already in place. The culture makes certain outcomes easy and others impossible.

      As long as you are not too attached to HOW something is done, it is sufficient to ensure the intended outcome is clear and that support is available when needed. I focus on hiring good people, understanding their needs and wants, and then help them understand the consequences of their actions so they can get the desired results. Then, I make sure they get rewarded in meaningful ways to them. Long term, this allows me to attract the best people and ensures I am able to get sustainable results.

      • That sounds reasonable, but as always, the execution is very difficult. Any examples you can provide us?

        • Roger Williams

          There is always pressure to deliver things faster and reduce costs. The challenge is that any change you make to do this has other effects.

          For example, I once was heading a project to reduce the time required to make changes to computer systems. Many had tried (and failed) to do this in the past by increasing rigor, centralizing decision making, increasing the severity of punishments for non-compliance, and other draconian measures. Yet the culture was strongly against this and prized flexibility and local autonomy. Even if something was put in place, it wouldn’t stick for long.

          My approach was to ask each area what prevented them from timely changes, and observe their work. My team and I found that areas had invented procedures in the past that slowed them down, didn’t help anyone else, and were not actually required at all! Having them get rid of these old ways of working reduced their workload, increased their satisfaction, and was easy to sustain since they were driving the change.

          While I would not claim this is a strictly Taoist approach to management, it does seem to align with many of the principles. Hope this helps.

          • I love the subtractive approach you took here. Very Taoist.

            Thanks for the example!

    • I like your take on this. There’s a blog I like reading, that talks about different ways to view organizations. In one piece (I forget which), the writer uses “tempo” and flow as a metaphor for organizational structure. There are certain activities that are natural and necessary for the organization and therefore get done quickly, others that don’t.

      Sounds like you understand this on an intuitive level.

      Do you think modern management literature is as a good a guide as classical Taoist texts and concepts for the modern workplace/

      • MarcHamann

        I’m a long-time reader of ribbonfarm too. Venkat wrote a whole book called Tempo about that topic (which I have read).

        Reading Venkat is useful for me, since I agree with him enough… but not too much. The best combination to stimulate thinking!

        • That’s funny; I finished his book Tempo not too long ago, and I’m rereading a few sections. His narrative rationality bit reminds me a lot of Hindu philosophy.

  • Miguel

    Nice post!
    I kind of perceive some similarities between what you call taoism management and the new teal entrepreneurship/management concept. If you would like to explore there is a talk in youtube called “reinventing organizations” which summarizes the whole concept, especially the self-management part seems very much into this idea of invisible manager 🙂

    • Yes, I think Ton Hsieh of Zappos is trying to implement something similar called “holocracy.” I’m not completely sold and I’m not sure it’s quite Taoist. I mostly think the unnaturalness of organizations comes from it’s size. If an organization grows past 150 people, it has to start forming sub-organizations which have their own cultures and may clash with other sub-organizations (if they are required to interact). I wonder if there is a certain “Taoist” limit to human organizations….

      • Brian Dunkel

        I have always said that once a company hits 150 employees AND has its own HR department, it ceases to function as a true business and more like a bureaucracy (think DMV). I have been a sales manager for 16 months and have learned the lessons mentioned in this post and comments the hard way. Lessons learned and noted…

        • Yes I believe that 150 person heuristic is called “Dunbar’s Number” which he derived from studies of primates and ethnographic studies of human tribes.

          There is something very unnatural about modern organizations…