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To Lead People, Walk Behind Them

Wisdom gone awry


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Jill Ebstein

3 years ago | 2 min read

Every morning I wake up to some inspiring quote generated by some overly beautiful, highly designed — bordering on maudlin — website. Today’s quotable quote comes from Lao Tzu:

To lead people, walk behind them

Now I know the world seems upside down these days. What’s good is bad. What’s bad is great. What seems obvious is just plain wrong. And two plus two no longer equals four.

But this quote made me think, “Silly Tzu, what were you thinking?” When I went to business school, which was less than a century ago, we learned “classical thinking.” There were three or four really good practices that I still use today when there is anyone behind me.

Toddlers don’t count, and truth be told, there is no one behind me. But if this were to be the case, I would depend on those critical b-school principles, which can be summarized as:

  • Lead from the front of the line: We got paid more at that position, and it was fun to look at the confused eyes behind you. They could be a convenient reason if you failed.
  • Lead by example: Try to be generous in the smallest of ways in hopes that those serving you will be generous too. Some finesse is required with this skill because you want to keep on the down-low examples of how your “superiors” (yes, we used to use that word) were generous with you by rewarding options, bonuses, and other “small” benefits.
  • Speak in as clear and inoffensive language as possible: Sometimes, acronyms and jargon can help. We’ve got 26 letters, not including using the Greek alphabet, at our disposal. In general, try to say a lot while saying a little. That explains the confused eyes you get to see.
  • Be generous with “attaboys”: The “cheer-leaders” thought nothing of “attaboys,” and there were no comparable “attagirl's” back then. I should know because I never got an attagirl — until I went to business school and learned how to lead.

So I think what Lao Tzu might be thinking is that if you lead from behind, you can give someone a swift kick in the butt should they dawdle. Either that or maybe leading from behind allows you to pretend to be “one of them.” That has many benefits ranging from motivational to trying to keep your ego in check. Occasionally, you just might accidentally learn something from the minions.

Either way, I think the quote is confusing and doesn’t help me be the leader I was born to be. They taught me that too in b-school. It’s why I paid them the big bucks.

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Jill Ebstein

MBA, consultant, author, speaker. Fan of tennis, dogs and being a leader of my pack.Interested in the intersection of life, family, and modern-day peculiarities. Authored "At My Pace" series


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