4 Paradoxes for Principals from the Tao of Leadership

Tao of Leadership, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age
by John Heider 1985, Paperback, 6th printing, 1990.
The Tao of Leadership is an adaptation of the writings of Lao Tzu to make Taoism accessible and more easily applied to leaders of all sorts. Principals and others in education will recognize many of the concepts as we have been writing and talking about them for years. While the book looks like an easy read due to the amount of white space and the large number of illustrations, each page/chapter is densely packed with ideas. Although I was able to begin to see patterns emerge while reading, I needed a fair amount of reflection and processing to really digest the book.
Note:  Throughout this piece, I am including Heider’s “chapter” numbers and the page numbers. Each chapter is actually only a single page of adaptation. When I quote the text, I frequently quote multiple excerpts from the same page and separate them with quotation marks. Interspersed is also my commentary clearly designated.

Heider’s application of Taoism to leadership brings out four paradoxes that every principal faces.
“7. Selflessness” “The wise leader, knowing this [that true self-interest teaches selflessness], keeps egocentricity in check and by doing so becomes even more effective.” “Enlightened leadership is service, not selfishness. The leader grows more and lasts longer by placing the well-being of all above the well-being of self alone.” “Paradox: By being selfless, the leader enhances self.” (p. 13)
One of my favorite things to do is walk around the building in the afternoon before Back to School Night and ask teachers what i can do to help them get ready. In my first year as principal, I asked this one teacher, who looked a bit harried, she very sheepishly responded that she still needed to make copies of a handout for the parents. When I said I would take that copying and any other copying she needed, she seemed overwhelmed with joy. It was no big deal for me, five minutes of copying. In any case, helping this teacher was far better than fretting over my first speech to the parents. By helping the teacher, we all benefitted.
“22. The Paradox of Letting Go” “This is the wisdom of the feminine: let go in order to achieve. The wise leader demonstrates this.” (p. 43)
I know a few people who cannot let go. I once worked for a principal who kept grudges against anyone who spoke up. I vowed early on in career that I would not do that. In the classroom, I made sure that I followed up tough student discipline interactions with something positive as soon as I could. I did not want the student to think that I only thought of the bad behavior. Once I became a principal, I tried to practice the same. It took a lot more energy to convince the adults that I could move on quickly. I made it my practice to create positive interactions with any staff with whom I had a tough interaction. I wrote thank you notes, I asked about their weekend or the remodeling, or I observed a lesson and gave positive feedback. I did what I could to show that I still valued that person. I let go of my negativity towards that person.
“29. The Paradox of Pushing” “The leader who tries to control the group through force does not understand group process. Force will cost you the support of the members.” “The wise leader stays centered and grounded and uses the least force required to act effectively. The leader avoids egocentricity and emphasizes being rather than doing.” (p. 57)
What an important lesson for a principal. In some environments force might work really well; not with teachers. Most teachers will comply in the short run, sure. If the teachers are not fully invested in a decision, they are likely to revert back as soon as the pressure is off. Instead, the school leader needs to find the right angle of approach and gently nudge. Finding the right amount of force to be effective is tricky especially when the ego surges. I found that an effective way to balance was to ask a confidant for a reality check – am I doing the right thing or just trying to assert my power (funny cause I really had so little power).
“78. Soft and Strong” “The wise leader knows that yielding overcomes resistances, and gentleness melts rigid defenses. The leader does not fight the forces of the group’s energy, but flows and yields and absorbs and lets go. A leader must endure a great deal of abuse. If the leader were not like water, the leader would break. The ability to be soft makes the leader a leader. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” (p. 155)
“What is soft is strong.” This might possibly be the most difficult paradox to overcome for many leaders. I’d guess that most principals are Type A, ENTJ personalities. We are used to using high energy to accomplish our goals. It has worked for us in so many settings. The principalship is different and requires us to adapt.
In a future post, I will explore several themes that arise when applying Taoism to leadership.

Image via Wikipedia

cross posted to Principal’s Point of View


  1. David Truss said:

    Great post Larry,

    This book is my ‘Leadership Bible’ that I go to time and again. I think I only brought 3 books with me when I moved to China, and I’ve gone to the Tao of Leadership several times since here, while I’m not even sure what the other 2 books are that I brought?

    It’s the only book I have that I’ve written in: Asking questions and expanding on ideas.

    These paradoxes apply not just to principals, but to anyone in a leadership position. Great examples and explanations. I look forward to your future posts where you share themes.

    February 26, 2011
    • Thank you, David.

      How appropriate that, in China, you’ve turned to a book on Taoism. Do you find differences in how Taoism fits there compared to North America?

      February 26, 2011
      • David Truss said:

        Hi again Larry,

        Re: “How appropriate that, in China, you’ve turned to a book on Taoism. Do you find differences in how Taoism fits there compared to North America?”

        My experience so far of what it is like to work in China tells me that Taoism does not fit here as would be expected. Confucianism would be far more dominant: ‘Rules’ are what drives this country. Decision-making is a top-down process and permission trumps empowered decisions.

        In relation to ‘getting business done’, (not a statement of the people themselves who can for example be very selfless), I do not see the paradoxes you mention being embraced here. That said, I have a Chinese staff at my school that bring a lot to our school, embrace how we do things differently, and there are things we can learn from them.

        It has been a fabulous adventure with great learning opportunities… but I would say that Taoism is not something you see permeating through the culture here.

        February 27, 2011
  2. Charles Smyser said:

    Larry: A great post. I use the principles of the Tao Te Ching as a guide to my leadership. While I operate in the business world, I found what you wrote to be helpful in expanding my appreciation and application of the Tao in my life. A long time ago when I was a young manager and was full of myself (ego), leading people was hard work. It still is, however, once I evolved to trying to include the principles of the Tao in my life, I believe that I have become a more effective leader and I am more at peace in my life. I do some volunteer work in the local high schools conducting leadership workshops for the students. You have reminded me to expand my presentations to include the principles of the Tao. Thank you.

    February 26, 2011
    • Charles,

      Thank you so much. I have always enjoyed learing and sharing about Taoism. While I think the lesson will be lost on many high schoolers, exposing them to taoism is a great idea. Please let us know how it goes.

      February 26, 2011
  3. Diane Lauer said:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing this excellent resource for leaders. I too have used this text as a resource, it has provided profound guidance and reflection. If you are a leader who believes in the concept of service leadership, this will be a terrific tool for you.

    March 3, 2011
    • Diane,

      Thank you. This book teaches us so much. Now that I read it once from a library copy, I will likely go buy my own copy.

      March 3, 2011

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