Leadership Quote – Lao Tzu on Servant Leadership

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“A leader is best when people barely know he exists…when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: We did it ourselves.” – Lao-Tzu

This is an old, yet timeless leadership quote from the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, who lived in China around 600 years BC.  And thankfully we can add “he or she“, and “his or her aim” today, as we’ve made strides towards equality over the last 1600 years that Lao Tzu wasn’t privy to, and we’re blessed with many wonderful women leaders, both high profile and local.

Do you know what this quote means?  Lao Tzu is talking about “servant leadership”, 1600 years before it became a popular leadership method and framework, which is amazing in itself.

Leadership quote lao tsu We Did It Ourselves

Empowering Your People So They Can Do It Themselves

There are as many different leadership styles as there are personality styles, although you may know the most common ones: from the Autocratic, where the manager is primarily focused on getting the tasks done with little regard to a team’s feelings, to directing, democratic, laissez-faire or “hands-off”, charismatic and transactional.

But there is one leadership style which has grown in popularity, especially with the rise of Agile and Lean methodologies in and around software development, and that is the Servant Leader.

Agile Description Of A Servant Leader

The Agile methodology describes a servant leader quite well. Their responsibilities are more of a Coach than a “boss”, something that the international institution of Gallup, renowned for their studies on management and Employee Engagement, says is the biggest factor to keeping your team engaged.

Servant Leaders Coach their team – they give them the playbook so they are clear on what to do.  They tie the work to a higher meaning – they start with “Why”.  You’ve probably heard of the classic book by Simon Sinek by the same name, (Start with Why), where he found the same thing – the best leaders start with the reason behind the work, then work on the “who” and the “what”.

Servant Leaders work towards Mastery – they check-in with their team and guide them towards mastering their skillset – whatever it is in whatever industry you’re leading in.  It could be becoming a master salesperson, a master programmer, a master project lead or software tester or change analyst or financial analyst, or anything in between.  A good coach understands that there is a foundational skill-set to improve, and is able to coach the team on how to improve it.

A Servant Leader also removes “blockers” – impediments to a team finishing their work.  Why is this important? Oh my – there are SO many reasons this is important, speaking as someone who has done the research into all those little psychological nuances that help us achieve our best.  Removing blockers has its roots in “Progress” – which, as it turns out, is a core human need for happiness. Teresa Amabile found after studying more than a thousand work diaries of people’s inner most thoughts, that they were happiest when they were making progress in meaningful work.  People crave progress, and if you aren’t giving it to them, they will find it somewhere else.

Lastly, a Servant Leader facilitates.  He or she doesn’t dictate – it’s more about facilitating the right discussion where the team can come up with the answers themselves.

And that’s where we come right back to the quote by Lao Tzu – “A leader is best when people barely know he exists…when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: We did it ourselves.”  We did it ourselves, because our leader was there to give clarity, facilitate discussion, remove blockers, and ultimately help us win.

And that is true leadership.

– David McLachlan

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