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Leadership 'A Perspective From Tao

Tao Te Ching said to be written by Lao Tzu during the period of warring states in china around the second century B.C.; a compilation of Chinese philosophy dating back to 6th century B.C. or even earlier, is a profound philosophical work with many lessons for the corporate of the 21st century.

There is a lot of debate on issues of what differentiates a leader from a manager. One of the biggest challenges for leaders is to lead and lead by example. He is less preoccupied with control functions which are a function of knowledge and more with broader objectives of how the future should be shaped. Future can be shaped with visions, dreams and emotions. He also realizes that for the future to shape up well he needs to utilize the Present to the maximum advantage. He can achieve higher ideals and aspirations only when he is in touch with the ground realities. Experience of events and situations and behavioral aspects bring him closer to current realities and help discern the undercurrents of change so that he can translate them to better solutions.

The managerial functions of organization and control have more to do with knowledge whereas a leader thrives on futuristic vision, people centered approach, a bias for action and in creating the future which he desires. All this emanates from the experiential.

Let us now look at the leadership paradigm from what Tao Te Ching has to say about knowledge and experience.

Knowledge & Experience: Tao is the way. The way in which we conduct our lives in accordance with the natural principles conducive to right living and thinking, without regrets and in such a manner that we develop and realize our potential without harming others or preventing others from realizing their potential which is beneficial to the society. Such a way of life may be conducted without a name. This may simply be called the way. Or to distinguish from other ways we may describe it and give it a name so that others may know of it.

By thoughts and words and by means of being non participating observers we may gain knowledge of its manifestation. But only through participation in this way do we gain experience of it for ourselves.

So knowledge is not the same as experience. When we have knowledge of something, we can describe only our knowledge and not the experience. And when we have experience, we can describe the knowledge of that experience and not the experience itself.

Let us look at an illustration. We observe the marketplace and we see the manifestation of market place. Then we have reports from our sales person which is the knowledge from the experience. So we now have the knowledge. But it is not equal to the experience of the marketplace. So we go down physically to the marketplace and buy or sell products or interact with the many components of the market. We now have the experience. With the experience come right decisions and actions. But we cannot still convey the experience itself, only the knowledge of the experience may be conveyed.

Knowledge and experience both are real. But they are different realities which may cause complexities. When they are used according to that which may be appropriate we may transcend the barriers of such complexities.

This perhaps explains why many of the leaders are men who have risen from the ranks. Even if they have not risen from the bottom you may easily identify them by their hands on nature and leading from the front. Hands on men who have the knowledge, knowledge of experience and experience itself. Leaders who understand the complex reality of the manifestation, knowledge and experience prefer to lead from the front and not from sterile cabins far removed from the experience itself. These are the leaders you cannot keep away from the marketplace or their people or their constituents or customers. These are the men who instinctively understand the 'Tao" of leadership 'The Way.

This is not to say being hands on and lead from the front is the only leadership criteria. This is one of the distinguishing qualities of leadership. It is said that the greatest leader of all time Alexander The Great always lead every battle from the front when the battle began and only then did he move on to other roles.

What would you prefer to be? An acquirer of knowledge or a leader.

About the Author
R.G. Srinivasan is a Management professional, Writer and Author. He writes a regular blog on management thoughts at for interesting links and articles on management, managerial resources, strategies and experiences.

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