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Chris Bruce

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Lao Tzu's Vision of Leadership as Empowerment

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists... when
his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say "We did this
ourselves." Lao Tzu

The nature of leadership has been a notable topic of interest since the dawn of history,
having been treated in detail by thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Lao Tzu (Dahlsgaard, Peterson,
& Seligman 2005). Despite this, the development of observed and theoretical approaches to the
topics of leadership and leadership development is a process that arguably began as recently as a
handful to decades ago (Day et al. 2014). This has important implications for how we approach
leadership both conceptually and in practice: because leadership is by definition a social process,
the constructs and perspectives of modern leadership scholarship are necessarily, unavoidably,
and even inextricably shaped by the sociocultural contexts and frameworks in and through which
leadership behaviors are articulated and expressed (Dinh et al. 2014; Rockstuh et al. 2012).
Those contexts, in turn, are themselves shaped by socially-transmitted conceptualizations of the
nature and forms of leadership. It is not possible, therefore, to study leadership with the kind of
objectivity and detachment that characterizes the physical sciences; despite the introduction of
observed methodologies, to some extent scholarly findings can be expected to reproduce and
even perpetuate non-scientific perspectives and behavioral patterns which have their roots in
culture rather than nature.
It is partially thanks to this basic theoretical and epistemological challenge that I find the
quote above so meaningful. In many respects, Lao Tzu's view of what constitutes good
leadership contrasts sharply with many of the dominant perspectives in popular discourses in the

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West, where good leaders are typically represented as utilizing a charismatic, transformational,
and occasionally even authoritative style (Stone, Conley, & Luo 2014; Fairhurst & Connaughton
2014). Good leaders are viewed as strong, decisive, respected, confident, dominant, and
inspiring. Certainly, experience and research findings alike suggest that these can all be positive
attributes for a leader to have in many contexts, but in my view it is critical to recognize that
other styles can be equally effective as well. Lao Tzu suggests, for instance, that the status and
identity of the leader can be viewed as secondary to the quality of his or her leadership. In this
view, good leadership emerges as a function of organizational outcomes and, perhaps, the
experiences of subordinates; it involves achieving a goal relatively smoothly, making efficient
use of team members' abilities, and in a manner that leaves them feeling satisfied, fulfilled, and
proud of an outcome over which they feel they have ownership. Achieving this may require the
leader to set aside his or her own ego, and certainly involves empowering followers. Thanks to
common psychological phenomena like the spotlight effect in combination with commonly-used
feedback and evaluation systems, this is not always an easy task.[2]
Against the backdrop of a rapidly integrating global economy and the gradual but
significant increase in workplace diversity that has occurred over the course of the last several
decades, Lao Tzu's observation also serves as an important reminder that the qualities associated
with good leadership may vary from context to context. For instance, in some Asian cultures
humility, perhaps more so than confidence or dominance, is considered a critical component of
effective leadership (Oc et al. 2015). This perspective has catalyzed the development of new
theoretical frameworks such as servant leadership (Dennis, Kinzler-Norheim, & Bocamea 2010).
In a business environment which increasingly requires its leaders to work effectively between
and across cultural boundaries and backgrounds in order to achieve organizational aims and

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objectives, cross-cultural fluency is a major asset. Achieving fluency of this kind involves
maintaining an awareness of the divergences and convergences with respect to what subordinates
expect from and require of their leaders.
Most of all, however, recalling Lao Tzu's characterization of "when a leader is best"
provides a sense of centeredness and clarity; it enables me to regain focus on what really
matters. Serving as a leader is a difficult job, one which carries with it not only the weight of
responsibility but also a unique potential to be caught off-guard, to become embarrassed,
frustrated, or flustered. Because a leader's success is often judged by the outcome of the project
over which he presides, it can be tempting to seek to exercise tight control over teams in hopes of
ensuring quality. In order to simplify this equation, however, it can be helpful to step beyond
one's own ego and take a broader view of the process as a whole. Leaders do not achieve
outstanding outcomes by seeking to infuse each aspect of a project with their own talent, but
rather by seeking to create a space in which followers can express their talents constructively and
collaboratively. If such an environment is successfully created and maintained through careful
and competent organization and coordination, then the leader functions as a conduit enabling
expression of the talents of the team, not the other way around, in a manner that seems so
obvious and natural that his followers barely notice he exists.


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Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence
of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of general
psychology, 9(3), 203.

Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014).
Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research
and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.

Dinh, J. E., Lord, R. G., Gardner, W. L., Meuser, J. D., Liden, R. C., & Hu, J. (2014).
Leadership theory and research in the new millennium: Current theoretical trends
and changing perspectives. The Leadership Quarterly,25(1), 36-62.

Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social
judgment: an egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one's own actions and
appearance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(2), 211.

Oc, B., Bashshur, M. R., Daniels, M. A., Greguras, G. J., & Diefendorff, J. M. (2015).
Leader humility in Singapore. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(1), 68-80.

Stone, G., Conley, C., & Luo, Y. (2014). Alternative Perspectives on Leadership:
Integrating Transformational Leadership with Confucian Philosophy. Open
Journal of Leadership, 2014.

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Tzu, L. (1992) Tao Te Ching. Mitchell, S. (trans.). New York: Harper Perennial.

[1] Trans.

Mitchell (1992)

[2] see Gilovich,

Medvec, & Savitsky (2000) and Martinko et al. (2007)