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Leadership and Virtue

“To produce things and to rear them, to
produce, but not to take possession of them, to act, but not to rely on one’s
own ability, to lead them, but not to master them – this is called profound and
secret virtue.” — Lao-Tzu

This represents an approach to leadership that is far too
uncommon. Many like to think that it reflects their style but few measure up.
Abraham Lincoln also hinted at the underlying issue when he said, “Nearly all
men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him
power.” If you are in a leadership position, a position that affords you
authority over others, your character is tested through how you
perceive and manage yourself, your role, your responsibility. Thinking about
Lao-Tzu’s message helps clarify what it takes to be a leader of character.

It is not enough to simply produce things, whatever you produce.
You must also rear them, cause them to rise up, to flourish. Are the things you
have produced flourishing? To the extent they are not, you cannot be recognized
as a leader of character.

Lao-Tzu understood that, as a leader, you are productive, you
produce things. The temptation is strong to take possession of everything you
produce. Instead, you need to release your production, let it flourish, be sure
it contributes to its maximum potential. Should you benefit from what you
produce? Indeed you should; but to limit that benefit only to you merely
verifies that you aren’t a leader of character.

As a leader, you act but shouldn’t rely on your own ability.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t be self-confident, shouldn’t depend on your
talents and abilities? It definitely doesn’t mean that. Rather, it means that
you need to recognize your interdependence and reliance on those you lead. You
can’t produce unless those you lead are productive. You can’t flourish unless
those you lead flourish. As a leader of character, you understand that those
who follow you can’t rely on you unless you rely on them.

You are a leader of people, not the boss, not the person in
charge, not the master of others. Your role is to nurture without inhibiting,
guide without controlling, to direct without dictating, to lead without
limiting. You are a leader of character, a leader who exemplifies what Lao-Tzu
calls, “profound and secret virtue.”

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