When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!’
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu gives us a declining scale of governing. He begins at the top and then works his way down to the bottom. Lao Tzu gives most of his attention to the leader at the top. That is the kind of leader everybody should want.
What strikes me as odd is that I think most people would be happy to have a leader who is loved. And why not? Haven’t we been told that love is the highest power? There is no greater power than love. We write about it in songs and poems. Books and movies delight in great love stories. We expect love to triumph in the end. We are promised that it will. So, why wouldn’t a leader who is loved be at the top?
Where is this leader where people are hardly aware that he exists? He only seems hard to imagine because we lack imagination. I don’t know of any songs or poems about him. I have never read a book or watched a movie that told of such a one as this. It seems the best our imaginations can produce is a leader who is loved.
One step down is a leader who is feared. We have seen plenty of examples of this kind of leader. And for many people, this is the only kind of leader they have experienced. Sad. But what is more sad is that there isn’t much difference between the one who is loved and the one who is feared. In my country, our leaders, at least in regards to foreign policy, have an attitude that you will either love us or fear us. Wasn’t that what the Bush doctrine was all about? You’re either for us or against us. You either support us or you are our enemy. How quickly a relationship can downgrade! From loved to feared to despised.
Yes, the very worst. A leader who is despised. Not so very far removed from the one who is loved, really. It could be, and has been, the very same leader. Some love him. Some fear him. Some despise him. Same leader. Eliciting such different reactions. Why is that? How can it be?
Lao Tzu considered it a matter of trust. But not the trust you might have thought. It isn’t about whether the people trust their leaders. It is about whether the leaders trust the people. If leaders trusted the people, they would find them trustworthy. But they don’t trust the people. It matters little whether the people love them, fear them, or despise them. They don’t trust the people; and that lack of trust only serves to make the people untrustworthy.
That is why there is such a lack of trust in all of our relationships today. Nobody trusts anybody. A simple handshake used to be all it took to form a contract between two parties. Your word was your bond. People trusted people. If you were untrustworthy it was considered a shame. On yourself. On your family. Your reputation depended on your trustworthiness. And your reputation was everything. It was your livelihood. Now we have to involve lawyers in every little thing. Nobody trusts anybody. Anti-trust is a very lucrative business for lawyers. So, it is no surprise, at all, that most of our leaders are lawyers. They have built their livelihood on a lack of trust. They don’t trust us. They have made us untrustworthy. There was money to be made in that.
But, let’s not forget that top-ranked leader Lao Tzu spoke of. The Master. The one that the people are hardly aware that exists. There is a reason why people are hardly aware of his existence. It is because he isn’t involved in self-promotion. He isn’t a big talker. Not one for photo-ops. He spends his time empowering the people. That’s right, he trusts us. And, oh, what a difference it makes!
Not wasting time talking, he acts. And when his work is done, who gets the credit? Not him. He doesn’t call a press conference to gloat about all the wonderful things he has accomplished. He never draws attention to himself. Because it was never about him. He is a leader. A real leader. The leader we should all want to have. Because when his work is done it is because we did it. He led. We followed. It is amazing what people who are trusted can do. It is, as if we did it all by ourselves.
Now, I know that this leader sounds too good to be true. Who has ever heard of such a one as this? You really need to work a little more on your imagination. Those kinds of leaders are all around us. They just don’t get the attention that the leaders we love or fear or despise get. Remember, they aren’t attention seekers. But your community has them. Your neighborhood. They are the unsung heroes. The ones that motivate and empower others to be the very best that they can be. I am not suggesting we seek them out to give them some long overdue recognition. I am merely suggesting we realize the truth. We can have leaders like the one that Lao Tzu raved about. We already do. And it might just be you.