Tao and the Project Manager

    Tao and the Project Manager

    Keith Willeford

    There is a reoccurring theme in the Tao De Ching regarding the nature of good rulers.  A good ruler (or leader, or manager) is portrayed as humble – so humble that you hardly know she is there.  Verse 17 most explicitly makes this description, and is worth re-creating in full:


    The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
    The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
    Next comes the one who is feared.
    The worst is the leader who is despised.
    If you don’t trust people, they will become untrustworthy.
    The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
    When she has accomplished her task, the people say,
    “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”
    (Lao Tsu, ch. 17)

    As the year gets underway, and I find myself pondering the type of project manager I want to be, this ancient verse keeps coming to mind.  It seems paradoxical.  Be effective by disappearing?   First, this runs counter to what I selfishly want.  I want to be recognized and loved.  Accolades mean I’m doing well, right?  Second, this contradicts everything I’ve been formally taught to this point.  The conventional wisdom sounds something like: A good leader takes charge, makes decisions, issues orders, and holds others accountable.  So what am I supposed to do with these twenty-five hundred year old fortune cookie sayings?   

    The only thing I can do is categorize my former supervisors and evaluate the extent to which this reasoning holds true.  I have had plenty of leaders I despised, and one or two that I feared.  None of them were effective.  I can also think of three “good” leaders I have had.

    One of these leaders fell into the “loved and praised” category.  This person was competent, active, assertive, and took on a bunch of responsibility.  It would be impossible not to love or praise this leader.  In looking back, however, I do not believe this person’s personal effectiveness made its way down to their subordinates.  This leader probably accepted too much responsibility, taking on tasks that would have been better delegated to others.  Furthermore, this person seemed to only insert themselves into my business when things were going wrong.  My hunch is that by taking on so many tasks themselves, this leader had an overly internal focus.  Thus, though well liked and personally competent, their presence often added stress or confusion.

    The best two actually did fall into the “barely know they exist” category.  One of them spent a significant period of time as my supervisor.  This person slowly gave me additional responsibilities over the course of our working relationship, making sure that I understood the purpose behind each task.  Eventually, this manager trusted me to perform almost any managerial task required of our team, including meet with client representatives alone.  It got to the point that this person could essentially leave me alone, unless I came to them with a question.  This is exactly what I wanted.  Our team was effective.  I personally felt effective and empowered.  And, for a while I really did believe “we did it all by ourselves.”  

    Another “barely know they exist” type was my best Marine Corps supervisor.  This person never raised their voice and was emotionally neutral.  They issued clear directions, asked one or two insightful questions, and then disappeared.  There would be the occasional follow up, but subordinates were largely trusted to successfully carry out and complete tasks.  And yet, this leader had tremendous influence.  They exuded calmness and focus.  In their presence, I felt focused and alert.  This focus continued after I left to carry out my portion of the mission.  This manager barely existed, but was unbelievably effective.       

    I suppose the takeaway here is that I have had a couple of ninja-bosses.  And, if my goal is to be the most effective project manager, then I aspire to be a ninja as well.  When I try to rationalize what makes a manager “good” or “bad,” I like to think in terms of “effective” or “ineffective.”  The despised leader is ineffective.  Nobody works hard for a manager they despise, and often try to undermine her.  The feared leader can be effective – when she is around.  Otherwise, everyone works just hard enough to stay off the radar.  The loved leader can be effective – for as long as she is loved.  The danger is that she will eventually have to make an unpopular decision, and this may affect that sentiment.  The ninja leader is effective, because at this point everyone is working for themselves. 

    But that doesn’t mean the ninja isn’t doing anything.  Just making yourself non-existent will obviously not make you a good project manager.  We must still take responsibility for proper planning, supervising, and attention to detail.  I interpret the verse as saying “do the right things, but in the least obtrusive way possible.”  And furthermore, elevate your subordinates while letting yourself recede into the background.  Not easy to do, is it?    

    Works Cited

     Lao Tsu.   Tao Te Ching.  Translated by J. H. McDonald.  Online.  1996.