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.