“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.”

–-- Tao Te Ching

I Am the Pot

There is a whole tradition in the definition of leadership that has to do with what leaders do not do themselves. The Tao Te Ching is full of that tradition — expressing the very foundations of a philosophy and aesthetics that depend on an expected interplay between absence and presence, an object such as a pot and the spaces that surround it. We do have our correlates in the West. For example, it to often said that the job of a leader is to set a vision, direction, or major strategic goals while it is up to others to determine how these things will be achieved. But this perspective and the logic behind it are often deadeningly linear, mechanical, and expediently focused on the end it mind. They may have little to do with a real appreciation for the balance and interplay of universal forces — or of people. They may be based on notions of superiority and dominance.

I am always impressed when I observe leaders who are effective precisely because they:

• do not fill up much airtime

• do not see themselves as necessarily having the best or smartest answers

• do not need to be totally in control

• do not believe they are the only ones who feel responsible

• know they do not understand everything

When I talk with leaders about participation and equity, I also sometimes hear them blame others for what seems like a lack of reciprocity:

“I give team members lots of chances of participate, but they just go quiet.”

“People don’t seem to want to take any risks.”

“They tell me its my job to make the decisions, so they wait for my answers.”

Feelings like these at one time or another seem to haunt those who want to be seen as open, supportive leaders. And they may take it personally, even though on another level they also know that such behavior is simply the inheritance of old cultural norms. They want a more balanced view, an escape from old styles of supervision and management. They want the real exchange, a genuine team.

Getting it right can be a true art. I remember an exercise I facilitated some time ago with a small organization made up of the founder, a four person executive group, and forty or so key staff. I asked the founder and executives not to talk while the rest of the room discussed the organization’s culture. It was revelatory for the founder as he listened to his organization because he could see that being quiet himself encouraged people to start their own real dialogue. They were willing to be quite realistic about some major resource questions and were beginning on their own to address conflicts he had assumed he would have to handle alone.

This example of the power of absence in turn reminds me of what is known as the “critical friends process,” based originally, as I understand it, on Quaker principles. This simple process involves small groups helping individuals by using a highly structured problem-solving format. The “absence” part comes as the person who is seeking solutions intentionally is quiet while others share their ideas for how he or she could best address the problem that person has presented to the team. In essence, a “leader” is momentarily pushed out of the group in order to better listen and also to give explicit freedom to others to share their ideas. In the critical friends process, the individual literally pushes his or her chair back from the group. When I have facilitated the process, I have encouraged people to talk about the person temporarily removed in third person only, “he or she,” not “you,” to further remove the individual psychologically. It’s almost as if the person is being talked about behind his or her back, except the person, a short distance away, is still actually there and is hearing everything.

The critical friends process focuses on an absence that changes speaking and interacting into listening and receiving. No big surprises there. But it can also provide an opportunity for something quite magical to happen — depending on the circumstances, individual and problem. And this is to give a person a chance to really surrender, to listen without having to solve. This, in turn, may open up pathways to insight and new understanding. Our own absence, our own silence can unstop our ears. Then, if we are really open, it can change our minds.

And if that can happen, equity, balance, real exchange and dialogue can be reborn among people, including the leader.

This all seems too simple to write down, and yet it is not so simple at all. We are clogged with our needs to remain who we are, to justify and defend. To surrender depends on listening to our own absence in a particular way, so that whether we end up listening in that silence to others’ actual words, to the sound of a mountain stream, to the noise of traffic beyond a hotel window, or within ourselves very deeply to emptiness itself, what comes in to us involves acceptance of our level of agency and its real limits. We can only do — we can only be — so much. And then we must turn it over. The very word, surrender, comes from roots that mean “to give it back.”

A good question, then, to ask ourselves next time we are stuck might be about what we must “give back”: a particular ambition, a need to be right, a desire to influence or change someone else, an illusion, a desire to be perfect or perfectly congruent.

It seems to me that could be the secret and this, then, could be the mantra:

I am the pot and I would do better to empty myself for the time being. Then I might listen, appreciating the space that surrounds me and that could fill me up — if I let it. I surrender, and in so doing, carry my hopes of discovering a different, better way.

Technorati Tags: . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Native-Americans have the concept of the medecine Wheel, the great circle of life based on the cardinal directions. Every posiition has equal power and unique teachings. The essence of life is movement and as we move through the wheel we learn and unfold.

  • Yes, I think there are wonderful connections here, and the imagery of a wheel is evocative — of balance, unity and diversity, centers and edges. In particular, a medicine wheel as a circle of stones symbolizing the important people in one’s life, is very much like that circle of “critical friends.” Critical means important, essential, and at least in potential implies spiritual connections at deep levels. If that is so then the listening and making of oneself a space into which others can freely enter becomes not just a moment of learning in our day-to-day settings but a practice that encompasses our whole view of consciousness, our powers known and unknown, and our ultimate learnings in this lifetime.

  • Every stone has a teaching and a valued vision of the world and life. Each stone is a sister or a brother ready to mirror back a part of ourselves. There is no judgment involved in this process. I think adopting this circular concept in leadership is esssential if we are to continue growing and evolving with equality. A system where every one’s voice is heard and no one is discriminated

  • Beautifully put, Flor. And not always an easy philosophy, for while there may be “no judgment involved in the process,” it can still represent a process of self-confrontation and deep learning that disturbs our unconsciousness and our preconceptions. Just so, this circular concept of leadership is essential indeed.

  • Dan,
    New to the blog, but not to your work. Have integrated the concepts from Driving Fear into our work for years.
    This beautifully done post reminds us all that one great task of conscious leaders is to create breathable safe space for those around them to express their truth. Too many workplace cultures we encounter are emotional prisons with some leaders that are still debating the value of listening!
    Your work adds such clarity and wisdom to the conversation of what it means to lead – and to work.
    A wonderful piece – will be tweeting it shortly.

  • Thank you, Louise. What an important thought you present here: “Too many workplace cultures…are emotional prisons with some leaders that are still debating the value of listening!” And the implication is that this is listening to others, but by extension that of course could also include listening to themselves in a deeper way … and listening to reality, too. Thank you so much for stopping by. I’m honored. If you had not, I might not have found your own very fine post on workplace fear. Best to you.

  • Dan, what I love about this post (characteristic of all your posts), is the depth and breadth of meaning you impart. You create this opening that expands my understanding, without imposing any dogma. You allow your readers to meander and discover their own meaning. That is your gift.

    The takeaway that I needed was to hear that I don’t necessarlyhave the best or smartest answers but can still be an effective leader.

    Thanks for being you, Dan.

  • Deb, it’s always wonderful to have your comments and affirmations here. I’m glad this post offered an opening for you today. Many best wishes.

  • Celina Macaisa wrote:

    I usually thought of those quotes in terms of un-cluttering your mind or giving your unconscious some room for creativity—>but it’s more powerful when you applied the wheel and pot concept to ‘team work’ and ‘leadership.’

    To achieve greater group success ‘trust’, ‘interdependence’, ‘genuineness’, empathy, risk & success should be present in the group’s culture. Leaders who do not ‘trust’ their employees or have confidence in their abilities to come up with helpful ideas, nor recognize the value of ‘interdependence’ or sharing information and strategy-making with their employees, will not produce engaged, productive, and committed employees.

    Why hire your employees if you don’t trust them or believe in them?

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