A Taoist Perspective on Facilitation and Leadership

To continue with this month’s theme around the qualities that make a great leader or group facilitator we are offering this excerpt from Steven Simpson’s book The Leader Who is Hardly Known.

Being Hardly Known

In experiential education, I do not know of anyone who does not enjoy being liked and admired by the students he or she serves.  Because experiential educators work closely with their students to nurture trust and mutual respect, it is fairly easy to develop a following.  It also is easy to bathe in the light of the admiration that that following gives off.  Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching, however, states that the leader who is loved and admired is only the second best kind of leader.  The very best leader is the one who is hardly known:

The highest type of ruler is one whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

Most experiential educators who are loved and praised serve as leaders, as mentors, and as role models.  Still these loved and praised leaders have a responsibility to gradually take their leadership to the next level and to become leaders who are hardly known.  This effort, however, is gradual and progressive.  In part, the progression is on the part of the students being served.  Some groups may initially need leaders to offer concrete guidance, and such overt leadership leads to admiration.  Only with clear direction in the early stages of a program can individuals within a group learn to lead themselves.  As participants gradually assume leadership responsibility, designated leaders fade into the background.

More significantly, however, the progression away from admiration takes place in the frame of mind and the actions of the educators themselves.  New leaders, inexperienced leaders, may need some reaffirmation from a group that they are doing a good job.  They need a sense that they are in charge and are doing something to mold the education of the people they serve.  Just as the students need to develop a sense of self-esteem, so too do the leaders.  It is normal to want confirmation from others that a good job is being done.

With maturity, however, external recognition of good work becomes less important.  Affirmation becomes internalized.  Intelligent leaders who continue to improve themselves know they do good work without surrounding themselves with an admiration society.  Genuine humility is not a person thinking he or she is less than anyone else.  It is going through life without having to have his or her good work publicly acknowledged by others.

Reference: The Leader Who is Hardly Known: Self-less Teaching from the Chinese Tradition by Steven Simpson (2003). Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing.


Note: The Wood ‘N’ Barnes staff wishes everyone a happy holiday season. Friday Lesson posts will resume after the new year. Enjoy!

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