Stepping Into a Strategic Leadership Role: Lessons from Ancient Chinese Philosophy

A daunting challenge facing many workers is developing the skills necessary to function as effective managers and strategic leaders.
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A daunting challenge facing many workers is developing the skills necessary to function as effective managers and strategic leaders. Success at task-oriented work in nearly any kind of company may lead to promotion into a leadership position, where the skills needed for success are very different. Hard work and mastery of technical skills no longer suffice and, in fact, may impede success in leadership roles that depend on social intelligence, collaboration, trustworthiness, persuasive communication, and a capacity to present oneself as confident, poised, and relaxed.

Many leadership training programs and executive coaching engagements focus on empowering individuals to make this transition from tactical know-how to strategic leadership. In my experience as an executive coach and leadership trainer, I've drawn extensively on a concept from Taoism (an ancient Chinese philosophy) to support my clients as they stretch into these challenging new roles. The concept is called wu-wei (pronounced "ooh-way") and can roughly be translated into English as "non-doing" or "natural action." A superb recent book that explores the concept in depth (Trying Not to Try, by Edward Slingerland) delineates multiple aspects of the ancient philosophy and contemporary neuroscience that bolsters it.

Wu-wei is a unique state of being that can empower managers and executives to succeed gracefully in strategic leadership roles. In this state, a leader's mindset and behaviors are fully spontaneous and effective. The subjective experience and outward appearance of wu-wei is one of natural ease and a complete lack of effort, leading to top-tier performance. But there is a deep paradox inherent in wu-wei: it actually takes enormous effort to function in an effortless way. How can one try not to try? If leaders can find a way to answer this question meaningfully, they can position themselves to transcend the stress of task-oriented work and ease into visionary, strategic roles.

Slingerland delineates how three ancient Chinese philosophers - Confucius, Lao-Tze, and Mencius - developed the concept of wu-wei. It includes self-disciplined, even ritualized, development of good habits as advocated by Confucius. Lots of experience with leadership actions - such as making presentations, running complex meetings, and initiating difficult conversations - helps individuals develop the sound work habits they need in strategic roles. Practice makes perfect; effort begets effortlessness. At the same time, extensive practice and development of good habits don't necessarily prevent people's performance from deteriorating when they are nervous, stressed, or overwhelmed.

Many executive coaching clients experience, under stressful circumstances, anxiety even about performing tasks they've already mastered. Here is where Lao-Tze's approach to wu-wei becomes relevant. When someone develops mastery (or even basic competency) at a task, they must "let go" of thoughts about it; as soon as they begin to think, their ability to perform diminishes. The executive making a presentation to board members or investors is less likely to succeed if she begins to think about the mechanics of a good presentation. Lao-Tze's philosophy encourages us to evacuate ourselves of desires and to function spontaneously at all times. This is a critical counterpoint to Confucian philosophy. But Lao-Tze's perspective is also limited, as spontaneity is only valuable if key skills are already in place. You can't spontaneously make a strong presentation if you haven't already practiced making a presentation.

In Slingerland's model, Mencius provides a middle ground between the poles defined by Confucius and Lao-Tze. It is in this middle ground that we can grapple with the paradox of wu-wei, by integrating the practiced development of good habits with spontaneous action in the moment. Mencius has the wisdom to encourage us to work hard to develop key skills, but then renounce all thinking about those skills so that we can actually incorporate them into our actions and our lives as a whole. Wu-wei becomes a constant balancing act - a Taoist yin-yang - of interconnected effort and lack of effort.

I recognized the power of wu-wei in a compelling way this past year with an executive coaching client. She had been the successful director of a major division of her company and was recently promoted to the C-suite, where she was told that the firm wanted her to "be more strategic" and proactively make bold decisions in the service of growing the company internationally. She was feeling bogged down and unable to meet these new challenges because of the stress of an extensive "to-do list," an endless stream of emails, and "busy work" that distracted her from C-suite roles.

The first few coaching sessions had felt mechanical and overly focused on her ongoing task-oriented work. Feeling uneasy that I hadn't yet connected with her on a gut level, I blurted out - in an entirely unplanned way - that I wanted to help her "relax into a strategic role." The phrase resonated with her and moved the conversation in a positive direction. She smiled for the first time and appeared less stiff. We developed an action plan to help her practice key communication strategies in a focused manner (as Confucius would recommend) and use mindfulness strategies, including controlled breathing, to help her stop trying so hard and stop fretting about taking unfamiliar actions (as Lao-Tze would suggest). These coaching strategies helped her develop confidence to delegate effectively and offload the tasks that had bogged her down. The concept of wu-wei assisted us in implementing a coaching engagement with favorable results.

Upon reflection, I also realized that my speaking of the words "relax into a strategic role" was itself a manifestation of wu-wei. I had disciplined myself over a long period of time to read extensively about the concept and to consider how I might incorporate it into work with clients. Then I spontaneously blurted out the helpful words to my client, without preparation and in an un-self-conscious manner. It was another small piece of the growing evidence that this compelling concept from ancient Chinese philosophy can be empowering for leaders in the 21st century business world.

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