By Brian McKay
Once a supervisor came up to me in an office environment and asked where all of my business books were. It was common for people in this environment to display all of their business books on their desks, although you would never see anyone actually reading them. Just looking at the names of some of these publications, it was pretty obvious they were crappy business cliché books that were made to sound cool and still said absolutely nothing.
So, I responded to this supervisor that I had the only business books I would ever need and pointed to the Tao te Ching and the Art of War. Ok, that was kind of being cheeky. Obviously I had read tons of business books while getting an MBA and had a bookshelf of books on lean manufacturing, marketing management, finance and accounting at home. Surely, Lao Tzu never taught modern accounting theory, especially considering it wouldn’t be created for another 2,500 years.
There are definite merits to the use of both of those books in business and I actually do employ them quite often. The Art of War is a given. Business has adversaries. You are always anticipating the field of battle and weapons that are needed. Courses are routinely marketed claiming to teach executives how to use it in their businesses every day.
The Tao te Ching doesn’t pop out as a business guide, but the Tao is a guide to many things when applied properly. The Tao teaches strategy, leadership and proper management in both business and life.
Let’s get into some of the passages and how they are applied.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” – Is there anything more productive in business than having employees that feel a sense of achievement and pride in what they do? If you are a master, you facilitate that and avoid your own exaltation. The results will show in your leadership.
If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. – Controls in business are definitely necessary, especially where access to money is involved. Being overly suspicious or controlling creates an environment where the most compliant feel patronized. You may have total control but you have also drained innovation and performance.
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. – This is a very big deal. Put people in charge who know themselves, their weaknesses and strengths. That sales guy might have been a top performer in sales but if he doesn’t himself well enough to be a leader you’ll have a disaster.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. – If you ever find yourself thinking that leadership is a popularity contest, please quit at that point. It isn’t and never will be. Popular people can’t make big decisions. Disagreeable people can change the world.
The highest good is like water. It gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. – Connected management outperforms in times of stress. It does not “strive” but lets go of what cannot be controlled, instead looking to what can be. As I recently told my daughter after she missed some notes at her cello performance, “Masters are the ones who recover nicely.”
When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you. – Some creative tension and competition within a company is good. Too much is a disaster. When your managers have to compete at the highest levels to get ahead, you will end up with bad behavior. You want employees you can respect at the end of the day.
Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness? – If your company does a couple things extremely well, don’t start thinking you can do everything well or cater to everyone. You are a disrupter which means you continue to focus on what has created your success in the first place.
Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as hollow as fear. What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure? Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. – There is no greater lesson for disruptive companies but to maintain humility in all things. The minute hubris comes into an organization it is on the road to failure. Leave that for the overpaid CEOs of big behemoths.
If you open yourself to insight, you are at one with insight and you can use it completely. – Simple. As a disrupter, you can never be content or oblivious. Encourage innovation and foster it at every level. You will find insight comes from all levels of employees within your company.
He who stands on tiptoe doesn't stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn't go far. – The other day we talked about when to take the VC and when to let it go. You only rush ahead in your company in a situation where being first to market matters. Rushing results in falling behind. Controlling growth and being able to plan for it are both crucial to success.
These are just a few passages. The Tao has been instrumental in business and life for me. Read it and you’ll find yourself more connected in both.
Brian McKay is a co-founder of zenruption and has his MBA from Boise State University. He reads the Tao yearly. Letting go can be the true success. He often does it with a whiskey sour.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license