My Week with The Tao Te Ching

Have you ever read The Tao by Lao Tzu?  I did and here is my story.  This week in Leadership Theory we are reading the 81 chapters and reflecting on its relevancy to leadership.

There are some leadership lessons to be learned here….

1. There are things that we do to develop the leadership characteristics of discipline, self awareness and focus.  Have you ever seen The Karate Kid?  This is a great example of what I am talking about.  Waxing a car does not seem to have anything to do with karate – but the experience of doing it and staying connected with the journey of doing it ratehr than the apparent destination of getting the car waxed was accomplishing the goals.  What are we doing as leaders to develop the habits of discipline, self awareness and focus?

2. My high school teacher (as you will read about in my paper) forced us to read The Tao and even used it as a punishment.  What kinds of similarities do we have in corporate America?  How many things do we try to FORCE our employees to do rather than letting them live it and experience it?

3. Bolman and Deal are the experts on reframing ideas.  They propose that we each primarily have a preferred frame through which we look at situations- structural, HR, cultural and political.  What is your preferred frame?  FOR EXAMPLE: When you see a new employee shaking hands with the boss- do you automatically think, “That person is just kissing up to the boss” (political frame), OR “That person is really good with people and understands how important it is to get to know the boss” (HR frame) OR “I wonder how that person knew who the manager is?  I’m the supervisor, they need to get to know me first” (structural frame), OR LASTLY “Our culture is warm and friendly.  That person will fit right in here” (cultural frame).      I’ll be talking a lot more about frames!  There’s a lot to think about as it relates to frames.

So these are the things to keep in mind as you read this paper.  Enjoy…

Synthesis Paper of The Tao:

Seeing The Tao Through A New Lens

My first instruction to The Tao was many years ago during high school. In this paper, I will correlate my initial experiences of Lao Tzu’s writing to my current mindfulness of this prophetic grouping of 81 chapters and I will also discuss the relevancy of this work to the understanding of leadership.

It appeared as though the mission of my 9th-grade history teacher was to instill in our fourteen-year-old minds the value and purity of everything that represented the Chinese culture.  As such, the 81 chapters of The Tao, each chapter typed in large print on a single sheet of paper and lined end to end, were used as a wallpaper border around our classroom.  A rotation series was designated so that each one of us would have a turn to read the chapter of the day. We tracked how many days of school had elapsed by the chapter numbers of The Tao and our designated punishment for engaging in typical adolescent pranks was to stand before the chapter of the day and silently reflect on its meaning. The teacher was definitely exercising his authority and remaining in the structural frame of mind by “keeping action aligned with goals and objectives” (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 54). This completely contradicts The Tao as especially expressed in Chapter 10 which is concerned with being a leader without having to prove you are in charge (Tzu, trans. 2004). If the teacher had truly embraced The Tao, he would have allowed more personal self-discovery time. Chapter 75 speaks to the fact that people rebel under the heavy hand of government (Tzu, trans. 2004). As students, we had personal experience with that rebelliousness. It is with these destructive memories of the The Tao emblazoned in my mind that I embarked on this current assignment.

It was initially challenging for me to ignore my overwhelming feelings of distaste for this book and move forward with a new sense of appreciation for the significance of these writings. Every day I would force myself to read just a few chapters while still feeling trapped in my old cognitive thought patterns.  Our high school professor had created a negative classroom culture around The Tao and as students we protested against this defined cultural aspect by “becoming indifferent, passive and apathetic” (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 129). Now as an adult, I recognize the need to create new experiences around this reflective work of art. “Leaders have to find new ways to shift points of view when needed” (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 13).  By mid-week, I was consciously shifting physical and mental visuals of this writing by not reading it in order and positioning myself in my garden by the pool to truly immerse myself in the imagery of The Tao’s messages. “Mindfulness can thereby refashion the links in the chain of actions and consequences, and in doing so it unchains us, frees us, and opens up new directions for us through the moments we call life.” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 221). I have been consciously unraveling myself from my previous negative perceptions.

As I am purging my distasteful memories of The Tao and replacing them with renewed peaceful experiences, I have become particularly fond of Chapter 48 which speaks of letting go of something every day and letting events just take their course (Tzu, trans. 2004).  I also have a special appreciation for Chapter 59 because I feel that I was previously looking through immature lenses and I had planted my ideas in rocky soil (Tzu, trans. 2004). I value the time that I have spent in self-reflection and I feel a sense of accomplishment by committing to new opinions of a previously deep-seeded aversion. “Personal growth and maturity, and the behavioral changes they produce, are not simply helpful adjuncts to business leadership; they are the essence” (Thompson, 2000, p. 232).

This experience has reminded me that, as leaders, we must remain consciously mindful of our biases and preconceptions and express a willingness to revisit old concepts with a new sense of purpose. “Nurturing reflective openness leads to a willingness to continually test these views.  It is characterized by true open-mindedness, the first step toward deeper listening and real conversation” (Senge, 2006, p. 262).

I have not only experienced personal growth by what is contained within the words of The Tao, but more importantly, it is through the process of developing renewed perspectives about The Tao that I have reaped the greatest understanding of leadership characteristics. According to George as stated by Northouse, the essence of authentic leadership is the demonstration of being “purposeful, value centered, relational, self-disciplined and compassionate” (Northouse, 2010, p. 221). Not only are these values all contained within this writing, but it is by using the The Tao as the vehicle to execute the practice of these values that the true essence of this self-discovery can be revealed.  “Self-understanding is essential even for the most successful leaders” (Bass, 2008, p. 185).


Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership.  (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice. (5th ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Thompson, C. M. (2000). The congruent life: Following the inward path to fulfilling work and inspired leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tzu, L. (trans. 2004). The Tao Te Ching. Retrieved from


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