|Part I: The Prologue|
"My aim became to leave things to chance." - Carl Jung
The Tao of Managing takes ideas from the ancient Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching and applies them to a modern business context. The ideas unfold in a dialogue between two men: George, who has learned from the insights of the Tao, and Michael, who is intrigued but skeptical of these strange, paradoxical truths. Their conversations are modeled after the age-old mentor and disciple relationship which is so characteristic of the important teaching stories of both Eastern and Western traditions.
Leaving Things to Chance
Jung's paradoxical statement about leaving things to chance captures the essence of the Tao Te Ching. During a difficult period in his life, Jung held misgivings about his career, family, and life in general. He ultimately decided that it was best to stop meddling in the experience so that the natural course of events could take over. He needed to balance the "power of positive thinking" with a new attitude of "letting go" or, possibly, the power of "negative" thinking. Like so many others through the centuries, Jung found solace in the words of Lao Tsu, who wrote the Tao Te Ching 2500 years ago.
No other book except the Bible has been translated into English as often as the Tao Te Ching. Yet this vessel of Chinese philosophy is little known to the general public in the Western world, much less to students and practitioners of management. But a receptive reading of this short and interesting book can prove as relevant and fresh today as it must have been over two thousand years ago. The Tao of Managing communicates its message in an immediate and interesting way, easily accessible by the hurried executive, business student, or admirer of Eastern ways.
In recent years, parts of Eastern thinking have reached Western managers in the form of theories about Japanese management. Confronted with the phenomenal success of Japanese industry, scholars have tried to explain how it all happened with theories which emphasize the cultural context of Japanese thought. Japanese workers and managers, we are told, perceive greater interdependence and less individuality. They understand ambiguity and paradox; they are not disturbed by imperfection (except in their quality control). These attitudes appear central to management success in a complex world economy.
Of course, many critics reject the notion of cultural advantage, pointing to evidence of a Japanese conspiracy to capture world markets. This backlash has made many American managers skeptical and belligerent about suggestions to import Eastern management philosophy. Some of the arguments are well-founded; others are clearly an all-too-common American reaction to shift blame to convenient scapegoats.
Our goal is not to tout Eastern wisdom or management practice as better than American. But it is no secret that American managers need something, and perhaps some reflection on the Tao Te Ching will help. We certainly do not expect American managers to become true Taoists; not even the Japanese get everything done by letting go. But there are situations where all managers would be better off by putting aside their "hard-headed rationality," at least for a few moments. This preconception of the professional manager, according to In Search of Excellence authors Peters and Waterman, "is right enough to be dangerously wrong, and it has arguably led us seriously astray."
Nor are we the first to see parallels between business and the Tao of Managing. Ben Goodspeed wrote a book titled the Tao-Jones Averages, in which he applied Lao Tsu's philosophy to the analysis of securities markets. In a delightful book, The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff interprets the philosophy's meaning for everyday life. There was even an unusual song by an even more unusual rock group, the MBAs, telling about the "Tao of the Dow." These attempts to popularize an ancient work must be applauded because they bring a valuable message to a world that needs it. Their humor does not detract from the importance of that message. It is in this spirit that we have written the Tao of Managing.
Still, the thought of "leaving things to chance" may seem antithetical to modern managerial interests. Managing, to many, means doing things: acting, altering course, and even meddling. Much of the time this is exactly what's needed. But managers committed to active change are apt to overlook an equally effective strategy – doing nothing! But the kind of "doing nothing" this book deals with calls for a heightened awareness of what you're not doing. As Michael is told by George, doing nothing means DOING NOTHING. And it's not easy.
Balancing Action and Nonaction
What is really needed is some sense of balance. Balance between opportunism and procrastination, between action and nonaction, between will and chance. The Tao Te Ching conveys this balance by telling about the natural harmony between Yang (the initiating and creative force) and Yin (Yang's receptive complement). By understanding these two principles and aligning yourself with them, you become whole. But this means giving up some control and denying your will.
As Jung has said, "Will is a demonstration of power over fate, i.e., the exclusion of chance." Will has produced our Western civilization through the rational, purposeful sublimation of our energies. In the process, however, we have neglected the "power" of chance and often paid the price of our neglect. Much of our modern problems of health, pollution, urban crowding, inflation, and poverty are caused by managerial interventions into the natural order. Our active production of material excesses is out of balance; the Tao of Managing helps lead us back to the balanced state.
As Michael learns in our story achieving balance is not easy, although it sounds like it might be. After overcoming his initial misunderstanding and skepticism, he develops a cognitive respect for the ways of the Tao. This can be equated to classroom learning, where we think we know things we have never tried to implement. As Michael learns, implementing a "not-doing" attitude is very hard.
But the Tao provides no deadline for implementation. It has been around a long time and can certainly wait a few more years for Michael (or anyone) to receive it. It will always be there, outlasting by centuries all of the attempts to discredit it, popularize it, study it, bastardize it, or destroy it. The message is so clear, so simple in a way, and so very important: balance and harmony. To live one's life or manage one's company out of balance is not to know the meaning of wholeness, completion, or, ultimately, success.
The Tao Te Ching
Part III of this book, following the conversations between George and Michael, contains information about the history of the Tao Te Ching, its mysterious author Lao Tsu, and the political context which spawned his philosophy. Understanding the historical debates over Lao Tsu's identity and the origin of the Tao Te Ching adds a perspective to all modern applications of Taoist philosophy. But an intellectual knowledge is not necessary to appreciate the clear and simple message. Nonetheless, it is helpful to know a few things about the Tao Te Ching before reading on – like how to pronounce it and what it means.
Tao is pronounced as "dow" in dowel with an explosive "d." The second word, Te, should be said like "dir" in dirty but without the explosive "d." Ching should be pronounced as "jing" in jingo with a slight emphasis on the first letter. We have phonetically: Dow Dir Jing as a rough approximation. A knowledgeable person will know what you mean when you pronounce it this way even though that is not quite how it would come out in Chinese.
Pronunciation is one thing, meaning quite another. The most frequently used meaning for Tao is "way." Tao is perhaps the single most significant concept in Chinese philosophy. For Te, most scholars use the term "power," but it can be translated alternately as "virtue." In Chinese philosophy power and virtue are closely related ideas. Finally, Ching simply means "book" or "classic." Putting this together we get The Classic of the Way and the Power or The Book about the Power of the Way. These seemingly subtle turns of meaning in just the title suggest that some real challenges await the would-be translator of a Chinese classic.
The reputed author of the Tao Te Ching is Lao Tsu. His name can be pronounced "lou" as in louse for Lao, and an explosive "ts" as in nuts for Tsu. You should not draw the conclusion from this that the author was a lousy nut. In fact Lao means "old," or "venerable" and Tsu is a commonly used title of respect like Sir but with more veneration such as "worthy one." We can say the Worthy Old One. This does not clearly identify a unique individual since China is noted for thousands of years of "worthy old ones."
As legend has it, Lao Tsu became discouraged with the decadence of his times (6th century, BC) and decided to abandon his responsibilities and journey to a remote mountain area beyond the Western border of China. When he arrived at the border, he encountered a royal guard who was puzzled by this man of obvious dignity and royal position traveling beyond into the mountains. The border guard sensed his role in an important event, and asked Lao Tsu to write a book for him that distilled his wisdom before he departed and his vision was lost forever.
Lao Tsu responded by setting down 5,000 Chinese characters that came to be known as the Tao Te Ching. In its present form the book is composed of 81 chapters. Each chapter is very short, in English as few as four lines and no more than two dozen for the longest. The first forty chapters deal with principles of the Taoist philosophy and the remainder with the application of these ideas to human problems.
Harmonizing with the Universe
All Chinese philosophy is essentially the study of how men can best be helped to live together in harmony. The advice of the Tao Te Ching is no exception. It is a statement of the basic relationship between man and man, and man and nature that holds true for all ages, not just sixth century BC China. The first step on the "way" to the "power" is to harmonize with, not rebel against the fundamental laws of the universe.
To grasp this meaning, however, you must be prepared to deal with paradoxes. Paradox is the single most distinctive characteristic of the Tao Te Ching. Something is said, then often its opposite is stated as if to prove the first. For instance, the last line of the last chapter reads "The Tao of the sage is work without effort." For the Western mind this is a contradiction in terms. Most of us believe that work is effort, so how is it possible to work without effort? Understanding these paradoxes is the key to unraveling the mystery of the Tao Te Ching and its meaning for modern management.
On encountering the Tao Te Ching, a typical first response is laughter at such preposterous statements. As you probe more deeply into its meaning, however, the derision becomes laughter at your own laughter. As the inner meanings of the paradoxes really sink in at an intuitive level, many are led to the feeling that this sort of teaching is much needed for our society today. We believe this to be true. For out of the paradoxical confusion, a new understanding of the dynamic relation between our inner and outer lives begins to emerge. The reconciliation of paradoxes represents the true mark of success in business, industry, government, indeed in all walks of life. This truism led Jung to assert the "Personality is Tao." The "way" to integrated wholeness can be achieved with the "power." Let's allow George and Michael to speak for us.