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.