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Over the last few years I have spent a fair amount of time reading the Tao Te Ching, a collection of verses authored by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Now I have been aware of this book for a long time, however, it's only in the last few years that I've really come to know it, study it, and reflect on the profound messages within it. It is a very short book - it can be read in one sitting - but the messages last forever. This is a book written 2500 years ago that is still relevant today.
This past weekend, the 76th verse caught my attention:
A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death.
Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life. An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.
The hard and the stiff will be broken; the soft and the supple will prevail.
Being soft and pliable in life is something I've come to realize is much more important and effective in my role as a leader. In some ways this contradicts what we've all been taught about leadership. Leaders are supposed to set the course, have a definitive vision for success, stay on track, and never waver from the original goal or perspective. If you don't have a strong opinion or a definitive vision you might be labelled a fence-sitter; if a politician changes his/her mind it's called a flip-flop. Imagine that we've come to a point in our society where changing your mind is a sign of weakness...come again? And don't ever be soft as people will not respect you and will take advantage. Unfortunately, the word soft has a negative connotation in so many of our societal arenas.
Now I'm not saying that as leader you should flounder and never form an opinion or vision. You have to have strength in order to be an effective leader. The question here is not as much about being strong as it is about how you exert that strength. We can either exert our strength through strength or we can do it through being soft.
Sometimes we have to know when to yield or bend with the wind. Sometimes we have to know when NOT to voice an opinion; when we DON'T need to be heard or when we've said too much. The allure of leadership and all that it can feed the ego is not easy to resist, but when we retreat and allow ourselves to be influenced our leadership is much more effective.
Having an opinion at all costs serves no one well; developing an unwillingness to reflect and change your mind reveals a stiffness that will be the companion of the death of your leadership. I want to be a leader who changes his mind when new information is made available; when new research shows that what used to be true is no longer relevant. I want to be a leader who is open and willing - soft and supple.
There is a strength in being soft - in being able to bend with the wind - because once the storm is over you will be the one still standing.