What Is True Of A Nation Is True Of Its Leaders; What It Means To Be Great

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

-Lao Tzu- (Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, is day five of our series of chapters on the art of governing, a manual for would-be leaders. Because I know some of you take a break over the weekend, it was a holiday weekend for many, I want to take a little bit of time recapping what Lao Tzu has been teaching would-be leaders.

Back in chapter 57, Lao Tzu said, “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao.” The world will govern itself, so let go of fixed plans and concepts, and stop trying to control. In chapter 58, Lao Tzu talked about the virtue of tolerance, and contrasted governing a country with tolerance, and governing a country with repression. The problem all leaders must ever be on guard against is the will to power. “When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results.” We must be content to serve as an example, and not to impose our will. In chapter 59, Lao Tzu used another word for tolerance, moderation; saying, “For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation.” Lao Tzu stated, “The mark of a moderate person is freedom from their own ideas.” Nothing is impossible for those who let go of their own will, their own desire. He also identified certain defining traits of this moderate person. One of those is “all-pervading like sunlight”, which is of particular importance to us, in today’s chapter. Yesterday, in chapter 60, Lao Tzu compared governing a large country to frying a small fish. “You spoil it with too much poking.” He went on to teach would-be leaders how to deal with the problem of evil in our world. Hint: It isn’t the way the powers that be always deal with it.

That is enough of a recap, let’s move on to today’s chapter. Here, Lao Tzu says, what is true of a nation is also true of its leaders. For a nation to be great, it must be humble. It must be like the sea, and take the lowest place. Let streams run downward to it. The last time I posted commentary on this chapter, my thoughts were very much on immigration. Imagine the sea erecting barriers or walls, trying to keep the streams from flowing into it. That makes no sense at all. And, for a nation to not understand that immigration is what has made you great, and will make you great again, also, makes no sense.

A nation is only so great as its leaders. If we want our nation to be great, again, whatever that is supposed to mean, we need to be mindful of who we choose as our leaders. They might say they want to make us great again. And, it is for sure, whether or not they are actually saying it, they all think they have the right stuff to accomplish this. Still, this is the antithesis of how Lao Tzu describes a great leader. A great leader, like a great nation must be humble. He goes on to explain what humility looks like. Now, ask yourself, does this sound like any of our major party’s presidential candidates? “When they make a mistake, they realize it. Having realized it, they admit it. Having admitted it, they correct it.” Yeah, I can’t think of any example of this, either. Try to imagine one of our would-be leaders considering those who point out their faults, as their most benevolent teachers. Yeah, I laughed out loud trying to imagine it, as well. But, laughing sure beats crying.

Remember, two days ago, when Lao Tzu said, someone who is free from their own ideas is all-pervading like sunlight? That sunlight plays a powerful role in today’s chapter. If the moderate person is like sunlight, the great leader, in today’s chapter, is most concerned with the shadow they, themselves, cast. How long is your shadow? That depends on how high your place is. If you occupy the lowest places, your shadow, your enemy, will also be small. Be ever mindful of what kind of shadow you are casting. Are you covering the whole world in darkness, America, hmmmmmm? Humility really is the key to being a great nation, and a great leader.

And, what does humility mean? It means trusting the Tao. Thus, never needing to be defensive. Center your nation in the Tao. Nourish your own people; and, don’t meddle in the affairs of others. Then, your nation will be a light to (rather than a shadow on) all nations in the world. That is certainly my definition of what it means to be great.

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