Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Tao of Leadership Poem 9

I had a thought over the holiday that I'd like to revisit the Tao Te Ching, but this time from the mind of educational leadership. My first post will be on Poem 9 from the Tao Te Ching. I enjoy reading the translation by Stephen Mitchell, if this version of the poem differs from your own.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharping your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

At first glance a person might question what possible applications could be tied to educational leadership, but I assure you there are ideas here to learn from as educational leaders. The first two sentences have to do with knowing your own limits. If we fill our bowls with too much or sharping our knives too much, we actually limit what we can accomplish. People who are overburdened rarely work well, so it our job to realize when we need a break. We should avoid focusing on attempting to fill our bowls with all those little jobs that can get in the way of the real work of educators -- paperwork, sitting behind the desk, pointlessly long meetings. Have you filled your bowl too much? Are you blunting your knife? Remember that education is about human relationships, not pushing papers across your desk.

Chasing after money and security is a question about why you want to be a leader in the first place. Did you get into leadership for economic rewards? For more security? Then you did it for the wrong reasons, and as the poem says, "... your heart will never unclench." You can want the money and security of leadership, but without passion and vision you will be lost. With your heart focused on the wrong things, it will remain clenched like a closed fist and your performance will be hampered. Caring about people's approval is certainly a dangerous problem in leadership, because if your worry is making people happy, then you are doomed to be a prisoner to them. Your decisions must be made for ethical reasons, for just reasons, for researched reasons, for the best interest of the community, not for approval. If you follow the correct guidelines to making decisions that are ethical, people will respect you and your decisions, even if they don't approve of them.

Finally we come to the most important concept for leaders -- do your work, then step back. Focus on doing the best job you can possibly do, and then let go. Don't fall victim to being prideful or attached to your work. Be attached to the community, the vision, the mission, but not the work itself. If you step away from your decisions, you can see, admit, and correct mistakes instead of becoming defensive and entrenched. This is the only path to serenity.

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