The Strength in being Soft


Over the last few years I have spent a fair amount of time reading the Tao Te Ching, a collection of verses authored by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Now I have been aware of this book for a long time, however, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really come to know it, study it, and reflect on the profound messages within it.  It is a very short book – it can be read in one sitting – but the messages last forever.  This is a book written 2500 years ago that is still relevant today.

This past weekend, the 76th verse caught my attention:

A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death.

Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life.  An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.

The hard and the stiff will be broken; the soft and the supple will prevail.

Being soft and pliable in life is something I’ve come to realize is much more important and effective in my role as a leader.  In some ways this contradicts what we’ve all been taught about leadership. Leaders are supposed to set the course, have a definitive vision for success, stay on track, and never waver from the original goal or perspective.  If you don’t have a strong opinion or a definitive vision you might be labelled a fence-sitter; if a politician changes his/her mind it’s called a flip-flop. Imagine that we’ve come to a point in our society where changing your mind is a sign of weakness…come again? And don’t ever be soft as people will not respect you and will take advantage. Unfortunately, the word soft has a negative connotation in so many of our societal arenas.

Now I’m not saying that as leader you should flounder and never form an opinion or vision. You have to have strength in order to be an effective leader.  The question here is not as much about being strong as it is about how you exert that strength.  We can either exert our strength through strength or we can do it through being soft.

Sometimes we have to know when to yield or bend with the wind.  Sometimes we have to know when NOT to voice an opinion; when we DON’T need to be heard or when we’ve said too much.  The allure of leadership and all that it can feed the ego is not easy to resist, but when we retreat and allow ourselves to be influenced our leadership is much more effective.

Having an opinion at all costs serves no one well; developing an unwillingness to reflect and change your mind reveals a stiffness that will be the companion of the death of your leadership.

I want to be a leader who changes his mind when new information is made available; when new research shows that what used to be true is no longer relevant. I want to be a leader who is open and willing – soft and supple.

There is a strength in being soft – in being able to bend with the wind – because once the storm is over you will be the one still standing.

11 thoughts on “The Strength in being Soft

  1. This brings to mind, not in any contradictory way, an old commercial for toilet tissue – soft and strong. Being strong is easy. Being soft is easy. Being soft AND strong is difficult because the two are contradictory at the same time as they are complementary. In some ways its like the Kenny Rogers song – you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em – but that sounds like being soft or strong depending on the situation, which is relatively easy. The real challenge is being soft while you’re being strong and strong while you’re being soft. Every parent knows how hard this can be and how much self-awarenes, emotional intelligence and wisdom it requires.

    • Thanks Bruce. I agree that if it’s too dependent on situations then it becomes inconsistent and easy. It reminds me also of times when we need to be “strong” in delivering difficult messages, but “soft” in how we do it. If we can do it simultaneously then I think we’re getting somewhere! Thanks for your comments!

  2. Tom
    I read your post before my run this morning and it had me thinking throughout it. Leadership, like many things in life is full paradox and contrast. It very much is an art form in understanding the human condition as much the “organisation”.

    Thanks for making my run go by quicker this morning!

    • Thanks Johnny! ‘Paradox’ is a great word as I think one of the main themes of the Tao is about how life is a paradox…that we have a body of “form” and a “formless” spirit. As you say, the art of understanding the human condition will allow us the right balance in being strong, yet pliable in our roles as leaders. I appreciate you taking the time comment and I’m glad I could help with your run!!

  3. This is the second time in 24 hours that I’ll be quoting The Tao of Leadership in a comment, but I can’t resist. If you’ve never read this book, pick it up! Heck, send me your address and I’ll buy a copy for you!

    This book is my ‘leadership bible’. It is well cared for, but post-it-ed, and hilighted, and underlined and has my notes in the margins… (All things I hate doing to a book). It is one of 3 books I brought with me to China, and the only one of the 3 that I’ve referred to again and again. Buy a copy or take me up on my offer! 🙂

    The book looks at the 81 verses in the Tao Te Ching and ‘adapts’ (very loosely translates) them as they relate to Leadership. From verse 76:

    “The rigid group leader may be able to lead repetitious and structured exercises but can’t cope with lively group process.”

    And then from verse 78:

    “The leader does not fight the force of the group’s energy, but flows and yields and absorbs and lets go. A leader must endure a great deal of abuse. If the leader were not like water, the leader would break. The ability to be soft makes the leader a leader.
    This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

    I really appreciate your perspective on this (actually these) verse(s). Very insightful perspective. Email my your address, I really want to share this book with you.

    • Thanks David. I have never read that book but I am going to…no need to send me one, but REALLY appreciate the offer. I really love all of the references to water in the Tao as well. Even if they are loose translations they are amazingly profound! Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your energy about leadership is obvious in what you have written! Tom

  4. Tom – great post. Being soft also implies that your mind is not fixed and you are open to learning. I like to think my mind is malleable and always open to new ideas.

    I really like how you point out that effective leaders are not fixed in their mindsets. Can’t wait for your book!

    • Thanks Darcy. Not having a fixed mindset is really important. I think the real challenge lies in the fact that most of us passionately believe in what we believe; that the way we believe things ought to be done is what’s best for our students. Being open to being “wrong” is what I think true courage in leadership is all about. Book should be out by mid-May…thanks!

  5. I couldn’t agree more with you on your post. Glad I read it today in light of some recent things going on in my school. It’s so important to be an attentive listener and be flexible. Being a leader means you need to have empathy and perspective. Your decisions effect so many people in so many ways, not all of them equally, and in the minds of some, not fairly.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Curt. I think the biggest lessons I’ve learned in leadership over the years is about listening and asking questions instead of always talking and giving answers. It’s easier said than done, and I’ve learned those lessons through mistakes I’ve made earlier in my career, but when we get to a place where can be confident enough to do that the results are well worth it. Thanks again!

  6. As a Vegan Ive learned that approaching people very softy about this subject is important. When you show you care you can connect more deeply with people.

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