What is Leadership?

What is Leadership?

On the way home from grocery shopping one evening, I saw a youth wearing a T-shirt that bore the words, “To lead is to serve”. I was momentarily stunned. Obviously he must be a member of a student council. Incidentally, just a few days later, I saw someone else wearing a shirt which carried the words, “To serve is to lead”. Now which of the two was right? 

The former example stunned me because it reflected an ugly weakness in the Confucian definition of leadership. The saying, “The gentleman uses his mouth but not his hands” was, I hope, a playful pun on the Chinese character. The phrasing of the latter, on the other hand, has its origin or influence from a biblical tradition. The Christian writings of Matthew 23: 11 states,

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.


How and why, is greatness related to servanthood? 

From a Chinese perspective, leadership is also related to servanthood. Chapter 78 of the Tao Te Ching written by Lao Tzu states,

‘He who accepts his state’s reproach,

Is hailed therefore its altars’ lord;

To him who bears men’s direful woes

They all the name of King accord.’

Lao Tzu

Obviously, Lao Tzu is hinting that leadership is not for fame and fortune. He is saying that it is a cursed job that may not be appreciated. It also implies that those who lust after power, leadership or dictatorship, will be punished eventually. Is it not shown in dramas and films, books and plays that characters who point out the fault of a king often end up in trouble? Why should the king be so readily angered? If he is Chinese, he should look back at this particular work of his heritage. He must learn to bear insults and criticism. All Chinese emperors have knelt before his parents and even unto God! Are we aware of any secular leaders who do so today?

Consider the phrase ‘accepts his state’s reproach’. The word ‘reproach’ in this context refers to a condition of ‘being shamed or disgraced’. In light of the Covid-19 situation, the Chinese are being upbraided, targeted for racial attacks in some countries. What are the leaders of the Chinese communities around the world going to do? It is often portrayed that leaders like to blame others when things go wrong and claim credit when things are wondrously successful.

Next, the phrase ‘bears men’s direful woes’. This refers to the sufferings of the people. Media would show how the rich will have it easy when crises arise. They are able to get a ticket to escape at the slightest sign of trouble. They even have money to build an underground home if there was a nuclear fallout. According to Lao Tzu, a leader must bear the burdens of his people. Most religious leaders fit the bill, as they are actively involved in pastoral duties. Even in the secular context, there are people who are actively engaged in bettering the lives of others.

Therefore, leadership is not confined to the political context of governance alone. In fact, everyone is expected to be a leader of sorts.    

It is a rare sight in Chinese homes to see a calligraphic scroll or plaque of five characters which in English would mean, “Heaven, Earth, Leadership, Family, Teachers”. These Five Classes of Beings were fundamental to a bygone era where the culture was strong in its influence. In fact, they were positioned prominently in the living room or hall and family matters were settled there. It was like a micro court where even events like coming-of-age ceremonies and marriages were conducted. Visitors who entered such a place were required to perform a salutary bow, acknowledging that these Five Classes are one’s Continuity and Civilisation. 

We will briefly examine how each of these classes train one for leadership. 

Heaven. This refers not only conceptually as astronomy, but of the heavenly beings and the eternal laws of the Five Cardinal Virtues of Benevolence, Righteousness, Propriety, Wisdom and Credibility as governed by the five planets Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn respectively. These five core values should be rightly understood and integrated into one’s life. 

Earth. Regarded like a Mother, this nurturing quality that is exhibited by the bounty it gives, teaches mankind to respect and revere Great Nature.

Leadership. Even in the original text, the character is not read as ‘king’ or ‘lord’. Instead, it suggests a refined gentleman, which James Legge used as an apt translation for the English language and yet, in all playfulness, it refers to leadership. The character depicts a hand holding a brush and a mouth. A person who is eloquent with writing and speech is regarded as a cultured man, but there is more: It is the leader that must motivate and influence others with his writing and speeches! 

Family. Everyone is a son or daughter to his or her parents. Everyone has a role of a relative and sibling. Learning to execute one’s duties in the family prepares one to get along with difficult people in a wider context. One also prepares what it means to be a father or mother from one’s parents. This does not stop there. This also includes one’s ancestors. Learning from the past brings valuable insight to the human condition. Everyone should be encouraged to study history at all three levels: family, national and international histories of the world.

Teachers. This is not restricted to education alone. The term extends to two other areas: pastoral and professional. In the former, a leader must know how to counsel. In the latter, one must continue to sharpen his skill or polish his talent. In the Chinese language, this character is associated with quite a number of other occupations. In English, we would consider teachers as ‘consultants’ or ‘specialists’. These include those holding special positions in military and foreign affairs. 

Therefore, if someone says, “If everyone is a leader, then who follows?” This certainly sounds like a binary issue. If there is a leader, there must be followers. If there are teachers, there must be students. Is leadership about gaining followers? The I Ching (or Book of Changes) has made it clear in its very first hexagram: Flight of dragons in the sky. There is no ruler. This is auspicious. 

The dragon is a Chinese symbol of leadership and power. It is a mark of attainment and achievement. Consider the birds which can fly freely without being caged or having their wings clipped. The leadership the ancient masters spoke of was Self-Discipline, not State Discipline. It is to lead oneself to personal freedom. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

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