A Leader is Best…?

What are the best attributes of a leader?

There is a famous quote on leadership from Lao Tzu that many are familiar with:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

I understand the intent of the observation: there is some virtue to be found in a leader that is able to facilitate the contribution of his followers to such an extent that he falls into the background amidst their accomplishments.

But I think there are some notions that are worthy of deeper reconsideration in Lao Tzu’s words.

A leader is best…? When people barely know he exists, and when his aims are fulfilled followers feel the pride of independence? “We did this ourselves!”

Followership is an essential facet of successful group endeavors. But followership is only one side of a relational dynamic that requires both leaders and followers.

A non-existent leader means there’s no one for followers to follow. A silent partner is really no partner at all. As I mention in my chapter on Displaying Dependence: “The unreachable boss soon becomes the unnecessary one” (p.192).

On the contrary, the leader has a vital role in funneling resources, creating connections, serving as an advocate…all to facilitate the work that the followers are doing.

I can’t help but feel that Lao Tzu’s comment presents a leader that is a bit disconnected from the followers. “His aim fulfilled…they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Why is it not the group’s aim? Certainly, a leader is likely to have a purpose and a goal, but it’s not solely his. A group that features excellent followership features leaders and followers joined together with a common purpose, sharing ownership for the work.

Strong followership requires strong leadership, and vice-versa. Excellent leaders need excellent followers in order to maximize one another’s potential and to achieve much more than anyone could alone.

When is a leader best? Simply, when he or she leads–not pushing a personal, authoritarian agenda, but facilitating the best contributions from all involved. Not silently, not giving others a false sense of independent over-achievement, but from a place of relationship, of interdependence and cooperation.

So, with deference to the ancient wisdom of Lao Tzu…

A leader is best when she knows who she is and is known by others; when their work is done, their aims fulfilled, they will say: we did this together.


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