Great Leaders are Hardly Known

cc image by alastairb on Flickr

cc image by alastairb on Flickr

Reflections on Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching:

The best leaders are hardly known.
The second best leaders are loved and honored.
The next level is the feared leader.
Then there is the leader that is despised.

A lack of trust in one’s own life makes one untrusting.

The sage leads quietly indeed –
Accomplishing deeds in order that the people will all say,
“We did it”.

When you really lead someone, the experience to them is that they led themselves. That is essentially it. I think this is part of the reason why, in the martial arts traditions, there is a sense of honor that you bestow to your teacher. For a really good teacher, it doesn’t really make a difference whether people are adoring.  What makes a difference to a really good teacher is that people learn. You know that. I notice this with my own teachers. Most teachers aren’t really expecting that kind of thing.

Some do. If you look at the energy of someone who needs fans versus someone who doesn’t need fans, the energy is different. It is not that they don’t care about the people that love them. It is just that they understand that this is not what’s important. It’s not important that your students adore you because it means they are on the wrong track. If they are adoring you, they are putting their faith in YOU instead of where it really belongs. A good teacher knows that. If someone was really wanting people to develop and they were developing, but they were putting all their faith in the teacher, I think the teacher would be a little bit disappointed in their student. Just because it would mean that they hadn’t owned their own space. It’s not easy to stand in that space, as a teacher, because you have to stand in that space yourself.

Our culture is certainly driven by the other form of leadership – of who is the most popular. The U..S Presidency is a huge popularity contest. That’s our leader of our country! So there’s this sense that this is the right way, but that’s really not what it’s about. I love the U.S. I feel like sometimes we’ve done a really good job of empowering people, to some degree. But in other ways, we have missed the mark. There’s empowering people and there’s controlling people. I think it’s been very difficult for leaders to trust the process and trust people enough to empower them. That’s the key. Do you trust them enough to empower them? If you don’t, then you need to fall back on control. Part of control is getting people to like you. If people like you, they will do what you want. I’m not saying that this is all bad.  I think it is helpful. We’ve certainly developed many skills for getting people to like you. I was in the teaching profession for some years. In the background, there’s this desire to get the kids to do what you want. If you look at the parenting styles that we have brought through in this country is the same way. I have found myself getting caught up in that! I know that it’s wrong. I can feel it, but I sometimes fall back on that wanting her to just like me.

So the question is – as a leader, how do you stand in that place of empowerment vs. control? How do you stand in that space? I love the line – “the greatest leaders are hardly known”. Great leaders influence people, but they don’t play a central role in that influence. They influence people and they are able to recede in the background enough so that the person that they are helping feels like they did it themselves. If that power is used in the correct way, people feel very strong. That’s the sign of a really good teacher, a good leader, a good parent, a good friend…anyone who influences another person. If you are wanting to influence another person, influence them so that they feel more powerful because that is the way of the Tao.


  1. Oh that is a hard one, isn’t it? I’d rather empower others than control them. For me, it’s a no brainer because when you control someone, you have to take full responsibility for them. I’m too lazy to do that. 😀 Empowering them to be their best is, for me, the only option.
    Arwen recently posted…Goggles, Disbelief & AcceptanceMy Profile

    • Ha, Arwen! Thanks for the visit! I think we all would really rather empower each other, but what happens and what we would like to happen sometimes get separated. Control sounds so heavy, doesn’t it?

  2. Wow, Amy, I really like this entry. I try to be a good teacher and leader, especially to my children. I also want to be a good influence on ALL people I come in contact with. To do so without wanting recognition is what I strive for.
    Kelly recently posted…Creativity and the Tarot, how are you inspired? (Creative Tuesday)My Profile

  3. Another great entry. The quote part at the top is so moving to me and your thoughts are an excellent add-on to really integrate the knowledge here. Thank you.

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  7. Nice post and yes we were thinking similar thoughts. I am glad I found your site. Fun that we wrote on the same topic with a different entry point.

    I will continue to read your writing. thanks, Michael

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  10. Hello Amy,

    Yes, it’s as much about how we lead as who leads us. I have managed to turn this chapter upside down in my own commentary and take a look at what we choose to lead us in a broader sense. It’s a bit grumpy and chiding, but what the hell – sometimes it’s good to remember what it’s like to not know what we know, or to forget it.

    Existentially yours, and with love nevertheless,


  11. This could not be more right for the times. A good leader is hard to find and even harder when you are looking at politicians.

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