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5 timeless leadership lessons

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Forget all the latest leadership concepts and fads. Forget all the platitudes and parables, the laundry lists of attributes and qualities. Forget all the executive coaches, mentors, researchers, and inspirational gurus. Forget all the books and blogs.

I've got something you can read in less than an hour that will teach you everything you need to know about leadership. No, I'm not kidding.

Of course, you can't just read it and walk away a great leader. That's not how it works. What you do with it is entirely up to you. But everything you need to know is there.

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I came upon this little treasure in 1995. I had just become vice president of marketing for a well-known public technology company, which was terrifying because it was a huge opportunity, I'd never done that sort of thing before, and I definitely didn't want to screw it up.  

Hanging around the business book section of a large used bookstore searching desperately for some inspiration, a little paperback caught my attention. It was called "The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age," by John Heider.

The beat-up book, written in 1985, set me back $2.40. I know that because the yellowed receipt -- now a bookmark -- is still in it. I've read it so many times, its 81 lessons are mostly bound with scotch tape. This humble little book changed my entire perspective on management and leadership.

Here are five timeless lessons I've excerpted. There's a revelation or two, but there's nothing like reading Heider's book all the way through.

Knowing What Is Happening

When you cannot see what is happening in a group, do not stare harder. Relax and look gently with your inner eye.

When you do not understand what a person is saying, do not grasp for every word. Give up your efforts. Become silent inside and listen with your deepest self.

When you are puzzled by what you see or hear, do not strive to figure things out. Stand back for a moment and become calm. When a person is calm, complex events appear simple.

The more you can let go of trying, and the more open and receptive you become, the more easily you will know what is happening.

Stay in the present. The present is more available than either memories of the past or fantasies of the future.


Forget those clever techniques and self-improvement programs, and everyone will be better off.

No teacher can make you be happy, prosperous, healthy, or powerful. No rules or techniques can enforce these qualities.

Polarities, Paradoxes, and Puzzles

All behaviors contain their opposites:
- Hyper-inflation leads to collapse.
- A show of strength suggests insecurity.
- If you want to prosper, be generous.

- Water wears away rock.
- Spirit overcomes force.
- The weak will undo the mighty.

Learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.

All the Answers

Nobody has all the answers. Knowing that you do not know everything is far wiser than thinking that you know a lot when you really don't. Probably every leader has tried this form of pretense at one time or another.

The wise leader has learned how painful it is to fake knowledge. Being wise and not wanting to bear that pain, the leader does not indulge in pretending. It is a relief to be able to say: "I don't know."

The Reward

It is more important to tell the simple, blunt truth than it is to say things that sound good. It is more important to act on behalf of everyone than it is to win arguments. It is more important to react wisely to what is happening than it is to be able to explain everything in terms of certain theories.

The wise leader is not collecting a string of successes. The wise leader knows that the reward for doing the work arises naturally out of the work.

And here's a bonus lesson that is eerily predictive of our gadget-crazed, always on, instant gratification culture. Keep in mind, it was written more than 25 years ago and adapted from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, c. 6th century BC.

Time for Reflection

Endless drama clouds consciousness. Too much noise overwhelms the senses. Continual input obscures genuine insight. Do not substitute sensationalism for learning.

Allow regular time for silent reflection. Turn inward and digest what has happened. Let the senses rest and grow still.

Teach people to let go of their superficial mental chatter and obsessions.

When group members have time to reflect, they can see more clearly what is essential in themselves and others.

Image courtesy of Flickr user MAMJODH
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