Leading by frying a small fish

In a moment of madness a few years ago, I translated the Tao te Ching, the 3,000 year-old Taoist philosophy, from Chinese to English and, with a colleague, set about interpreting it in terms of 21st century leadership.  For various reasons, the project was put on hold and one day perhaps I will go back and complete it.  The Tao is the gift that keeps on giving.  Written at a time when direct criticism of the Chinese government might result in death, it’s the work of a collective who wisely couched their criticisms in ways which are open to interpretation and so cannot be seen as direct indictments of a corrupt regime.  And throughout the Tao there are little gems, written in pseudo-verse and offering wisdom around governance an leadership which has as much relevance today as it did 3,000 years ago.

One verse – and I’m slightly paraphrasing here – says that governing a country is like frying a small fish.  Like so much of the Tao it requires a little thought and interpretation before the meaning crystallises.  The bad chef prepares the fish badly, perhaps not cleaning or seasoning it adequately, not heating the oil sufficiently and constantly prodding the fish to test whether or not is cooked.  The under-cooked fish falls apart in the pan.

The good chef cleans and seasons the fish, heats the oil to just the right temperature, gently places the fish in the pan and then leaves it.  A fish is a wonderful thing: given the appropriate preparation, it knows how to cook itself.  The chef stands back and observes – watching, smelling and aware of the fish’s progress.  When the fish is cooked on one side, the chef gently flips it over and stands back to observe again.  Result – beautifully cooked fish.

Great leaders prepare the environment and the people.  They stand back and allow the well chosen, well briefed, well trained and prepared people to do what they need to do, intervening only when they need to.  The result – well executed tasks by a motivated staff, not constrained by micro-management and interference, but trusted to do what they believed they were hired to do.

Another passage in the Tao talks about the great leader preparing the environment, then standing back and allowing the people to do what they need to.  When the people succeed, they congratulate themselves on a job well done, then turn to the leader who is standing slightly on the sidelines and say “thank you.”

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.