The Lao Tzu Approach to Leadership

If you were to perform a Google search using the phrase “best leadership quotes,” the following one would make or top nearly every list in the results:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

When you consider the stereotypical ‘character’ of a CEO, ‘outspoken’ and ‘face-of-the-company’ may be natural descriptors. Think about leaders such as Tim Cook, Bob Iger, Jeff Bezos, and Marissa Mayer. These well-known CEOs may seem anything but the type to disappear into the background.

So, why does this quote continue to hold true as a source of inspiration for so many leaders? While the aforementioned individuals seem to be front and center during company announcements and major releases, that’s about the only time you see or hear from them. What makes these leaders and others like them so powerful and successful is their ability to encourage and inspire outstanding work in their employees, without taking any credit for themselves, finding pure satisfaction in the success of their team members, the company, and brand.

Becoming the type of leader Tzu acclaims is desirable for many reasons, and following are some tips to help in your development toward this goal:

  • Be observant. Another very popular quote by Tzu says, “to lead people, walk behind them.” Leaders can only truly lead when they fully understand their team members and what motivates them; and, that knowledge only comes with time and observation. Tzu’s words indicate this need to lead from a position of understanding.
  • Give credit. One of the worst qualities a leader can have is a desire to take credit. The best leader, on the other hand, knows that company successes are his/her own successes, and therefore does not need recognition along the way. He or she is happy to focus the spotlight on others instead, encouraging and motivating them in the process.
  • Acknowledge success in others. Beyond just giving credit, a good leader acknowledges the hard work of his or her employees. He or she discovers the strengths in others and encourage development through words and actions. They are so good at doing so, in fact, employees naturally grow more confident in their own abilities, and will eventually feel that satisfaction that comes from “doing it themselves.”

The important thing to remember is that becoming a great leader is a process. Warren Benis, American scholar, organizational consultant and author, once said, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
So, appreciating this fact, and then taking the necessary time and effort to develop such an art has great probability of producing phenomenal results.

Carl Robinson, Ph.D., Managing Principal, Advanced Leadership Consulting

carl @

We help maximize the effectiveness of individuals and organizations by helping them improve their ability to lead, work together, select and develop their people.

Carl is a business psychologist and leadership development expert who focuses on the development of high performance leaders.

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