When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self interest
and leaves no trace.
When the work is done,
the people say: “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves.”
Verse 17 begins a section of the Tao Te Ching that is focused largely on leadership. Lao Tzu was perhaps addressing governmental and state leaders during what was a time of great upheaval in ancient China. His words, however, apply to anyone who is in a position of leadership or authority, including parents and teachers.
Very often, people’s egos dramatically inflate the moment they are put in a position of authority, no matter how great or minor. Many people can’t help but make it about themselves, as they want to be seen as a great or effective leader.
Lao Tzu suggests that the best leader is one whose presence is barely felt or recognised, a notion that runs counter to the demands of ego. Instead of trying to control people and micro-manage every detail, Lao Tzu advises us to trust people, to step back and gently guide from behind the scenes, without self interest (ego involvement) and to “leave no trace” once the work is done.
By keeping ourselves out of the picture as much as possible, we can allow people to flourish. As another famous quote from the Tao Te Ching states:
“If you don’t assume importance, you can never lose it.”