With the greatest leader above them,

people barely know one exists.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one,

no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest

and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say

“We did it ourselves.”

Lao-tzu

The 17th verse of the Tao Te Ching is focused on the different ways you can lead or govern people. I would like to take out leader and supplant it with parent while I highlight what I see as the meaning of this verse. We can all take away some valuable parenting lessons from studying this verse. The first step is relinquishing control for a moment and become an astute observer of how your kids are behaving, or how they go about making their daily decisions in life. Now ask yourself without interfering can I create an environment that will help my children act responsibly.

Lao-tzu advises making yourself as invisible as possible if you want to become a good parent or leader. Try allowing your children to act without feeling they need to impress you. If your child is confronted with a problem or a decision instead of giving them what you want them to do instead offer a slight suggestion or tell a brief story about what others have done to resolve a similar issue. Leave it as that; then leave it up to your children to utilize that suggestion or not. Leave them with the feeling that you trust them to come up with the right decision. Whatever decisions your child comes up with whether it is your slight suggestion, your parable of a similar situation, combination of the two, or something completely different. This will leave your child with the feeling “I fixed this on my own.” Over time this will lead to healthy decision making their entire lives.

The one part the Tao warns us against is the urge to rule with fear. If I as a parent use fear to govern my children then my children will only behave in a proper manner as long as the fear (myself) is present. This does nothing to account for how they will behave when I am not around. There was a study done on just this example. They studied two separate classrooms. The first was done on a teacher who was a strict disciplinarian; the other was done on a teacher who teaches with praise and freedom. When the teacher who was a disciplinarian left the classroom the students became chaotic. When the teacher who praised their students left; the kids behaved as if she was still in the room.

The most profound part for me of this verse is when Lao-tzu is speaking about great leaders/parents. He advises us to speak little, and never speak carelessly. I think as parents when we are frustrated with our children we can speak without thinking. Speaking carelessly can have a lasting negative affect on our children, whether we can see it or not. We should raise our children with love and without self-interest. As parents we should be in the background trusting and cultivating our children to make good decisions; not from our rules, but from the true inner goodness of our children.

Truly inspiring leaders and parents get results by their own examples. They encourage their children to do the right thing not by bragging about their perfections or their own personal view on how they should be. They create space for others to be inspired and to achieve their own greatness. The Taosist leader always leaves people to choose and pursue their own way of life, their own conception of good. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer said it best:

“I’ve always believed that parents are not for leaning upon, but rather exist to make leaning unnecessary.”

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Comments
  1. Madison Woods says:

    Such good parenting advice. I wish I’d had started out with more of this sort of thinking, though. It’s hard when one parent wants to ‘rule without sparing the rod’ and the other wants to be a more benevolent guide.

  2. leelee says:

    I agree with you completely. As for leaders, I think it’s probably very rare to find a leader who wants his people to think, “We did this ourselves.” Sadly, I suspect most men of power don’t get into the business of leadership because they have no ego and want what’s best for their people.

    • Leelee,

      I tried this approaching in one of my manager jobs, and found employees respond very well to a “we did this ourselves” type of approach. In looking back I took a very Tao approach to managing.

  3. f says:

    African leaders should read this article.

  4. Robin says:

    What exactly was the experiment/study called?

    • I am sorry I wrote this year’s ago what experiment/study are you referring to

      • Robin says:

        You say:

        “There was a study done on just this example. They studied two separate classrooms. The first was done on a teacher who was a strict disciplinarian; the other was done on a teacher who teaches with praise and freedom. When the teacher who was a disciplinarian left the classroom the students became chaotic. When the teacher who praised their students left; the kids behaved as if she was still in the room.”

        I am trying to do research and a report on this topic and it would be a great example to use if I new the exact experiment!

      • Ok thank you let me find the name for you.

  5. Robin says:

    Thank you!

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