“Sages never attempt great deeds,” says Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching (in my Derek Lin translation). “Thus they can achieve greatness.”
The reasoning behind this apparent contradiction is that wise people take things one step at a time. They are never directly attempting some world-shaking. marvelous feat. Instead, they successfully complete one small task at a time, dividing each big problem into several smaller and more manageable ones. “Plan difficult tasks through the simplest tasks,” advises Lao Tzu. “The large tasks of the world must be handled through the small tasks.”
Don’t focus on how far you still have to go. Just worry about the next step to be taken. “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath the feet.”
The great leaders, by proceeding calmly step-by-step, make even the greatest accomplishments look easy, and that’s why Lao Tzu can say that “great skill is unrefined.” The best managers lead with such finesse that when the job is accomplished, “the people all say, ‘We did it naturally’.”
Good leaders do not feel like a weight upon the people, but as wings. “The sages are positioned above, but the people do not feel burdened” […] “The world is glad to push them forward without resentment.” A good leader does not tug at his team like an impatient and exasperated muleteer, but supports them, helping them to move in the direction they, themselves, desire to go. “If they wish to be in front of people,” says the Tao Te Ching, leaders “must place themselves behind them.”
Says Lao Tzu… “The highest rulers, people do not know they have them. The next level, people love them and praise them. The next level, people fear them. The next level, people despise them.”
Wise leaders are comfortable to “achieve without claiming credit” and “do not wish to display their virtue.” They do not resent giving what they have to offer to better the situation of others, for they contain within themselves an excess of vitality to give. And “because they do not dwell on success” […] success “never goes away.”
Good leaders do not hang around for numerous curtain calls and victory laps. They get the job done, and then move on to the next objective. But because of their success, even “without flaunting themselves,” such leaders “are seen clearly.” The Tao Te Ching says that “those who are on tiptoes cannot stand”— meaning that those who expend their energy trying to keep themselves raised above the others will find themselves weakened– just see how long you can stand on your tiptoes!
A good leader understands honor and values it, but he does not luxuriate in it. “Know the honor,” says Lao Tzu, but “hold to the humility.”
A good leader will of course need to give instruction to his team, but he need not be rude or haughty about it. He can also set a good example for others to emulate, but without being prideful or ostentatious. As the Tao Te Ching says, a good leader is “righteous without being scathing, incorruptible without being piercing, straightforward without being ruthless,” and he can “illuminate without being flashy.” A good leader does not try to be “shiny like jade,” but solid and strong and “dull like rocks.”
Part of leading a team toward the achievement of a goal involves the wisdom to understand when to stop pushing. “Knowing when to stop avoids danger,” says the Tao Te Ching. “A good commander achieves result, then stops and does not dare to reach for domination.”
Going too far can be as bad as stopping short of the goal. “Holding a cup and overfilling it cannot be as good as stopping short,” says Lao Tzu.
Providing a startling example of a campaign taking too far, Lao Tzu writes that “when the world lacks the Tao, warhorses must give birth on the battlefield.”
Lastly, but very importantly, a good leader should be very parsimonious when it comes to making promises. “One who makes promises lightly must deserve little trust.”