Lead Like Water

Think of water for a second. What is your first impression when you come across this term?

Weak? Common? Boring?

How about Leadership?

Strong? Extraordinary? Outstanding?

When we put these 2 seemingly contradictory terms together, we get what we typically refer to as oxymoron in English.

Yet, four famous wise men from East to West all suggested leaders to lead like water.

The Tao Te Ching is fundamental to the Philosophical Taoism. Laozi, one of the wisest men in Chinese history who lived in 6th century BCE, emphasised the “tao” or “the way”. As such, tenets about leadership and social behavior are said to simply follow the operation of the natural system. In Tao Te Ching, Laozi often used metaphors to illustrate his abstract concepts (Chen & Lee, 2007). He used the metaphor “water” to describe the leadership style of a sage as water processes many key attributes of leadership. The essential leadership approach based on Taoistic leadership can be described as “Wateristic”. Chen and Lee (2007) who wrote an excellent book called Leadership and Management in China: Philosophies, Theories, and Practices. They summarised the wateristic leadership in five key features (p.90-93):

1. Water is altruistic to others.
2. Water is modest and humble.
3. Water is adaptive and flexible.
4. Water is transparent and clear.
5. Water is gentle, yet persistent

One of the wisest men in history of Middle East is King Solomon as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. He wrote a few wisdom books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes about three thousands years ago (four hundred years before Laozi). In Proverbs, he wrote a lot about the key mindset and behaviour of wise kings that equally applies to leaders. He wrote

Good leadership is a channel of water controlled by God;
he directs it to whatever ends he chooses (Proverbs 21:1, Message)

King Solomon was referring to good leaders are willing to channel the right resource to their followers when they need. Good leaders are committed to do whatever it takes adaptably for the success of their followers and the whole organization .

Fast forward about 1000 years in the New Testament of the Bible. Jesus Christ demonstrated what it means by leadership by demonstrating one of the most surprising act to his followers using water. In the gospel of John,

…..he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron….
Then he said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. (John 13:4-7, 12-17, Message)

The water analogy is not confined in ancient wisdom. The Kung-Fu master Bruce Lee in 1970s once had a famous quote regarding his his core philosophy during a TV interview in USA. Coincidentally, his core philosophy is also ” Like water”

“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water.
Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle;
You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

You can watch his famous interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6SC58jaF2M

So what can we apply these ancient wisdoms into real life in 21C?

My experience tells me that these days when dealing with the Millennial Generation (or the Post 80 Gen in China), “wateristic leadership” may especially work well with them. According to many researches, the next generation prefers managers with less power distance, and they would like to have managers that assume the role of friends and coaches rather than someone who just give them orders.

Managers as servant leaders demonstrated by Jesus are willing to “wash their feet” are definitely welcomed by the next gen as they see gentle and modest leaders. Moreover, as the Facebook generation are accustomed to receive frequent, just-in-time feedback, the wateristic leaders who provide nourishment and channel the resources available to help their success when they need help are key to gain their trust and loyalty. In the postmodern era, people, especially the young ones, prefer authenticity and transparency in their trusting leaders. Leaders who “lead like water” with the focus of transparency are definitely more welcomed than those pretentious leaders. Leaders who are adaptable to these generation mindset, and not ask them to be like them, can unleash their potential in their cross-generation team.

Is it merely a coincidence that four of the wisest men in the history of mankind all pointed to water when they talked about leadership? Next time when you take a sip of water or wash your hands, pause for a second, and think if you are leading like water. And when you feel frustrated by the next generation, perhaps you can try practicing what suggested by Laozi, Solomon, Jesus and Burce Lee.

Be Water, my friend!