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  • Writer's pictureMartin Stepek

The wise step back

In this series of short blogs Martin Stepek has selected thoughts from some of the great thinkers who've had a huge influence on his own fulfilment and peace of mind in leadership and work, and gives his take on them. We hope you enjoy and find it useful.

The wise step back but are always in front, stay outside but are always within. They have no self-interest but self is fulfilled. Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is one of the great classics of world literature. From 300 BC China it is a series of often complex and challenging verses that seek to explain to leaders how best to live their lives and rule their kingdoms. I have studied it in various translations for over twenty years and still find new insights from it every time I re-read it, which is at least twice every year.

In this quote, Lao Tzu is advising leaders not to get too sucked into the day to day matters, or worse, he warns against micro-managing the people whom they have hired to do particular roles, people who were brought in specifically because they were deemed to have the talent and qualities required to do the job without interference from above. This is the meaning of the phrases “step back” and “stay outside”

Still, Lao Tzu does suggest they keep an eye on things - “always in front” and be seen to be present - “always within”.

This is no easy skill to nurture. We tend to think in binary terms with regards to delegation. You either do it and leave people alone, or you lead from the front, doing things yourself. We don’t often realise that we can do both, skilfully, subtly, and constructively.

The last line is related to this matter. They decide whether and when to step “in front” and be “within” but not from a sadly all too familiar egotism of “I know best” or the desire to show off to their people that they're the boss; or a fear of failure and therefore loss of status or wealth.

Rather, their decision is based on the benefit of all, a sense of universal care and consideration, yet paradoxically through that selfless approach the leader is fulfilled and their wider and deeper interests achieved. 

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