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If you want to be extraordinary…

If you want to become whole,

let yourself become partial.

If you want to become straight,

let yourself become crooked.

If you want to become full,

let yourself be empty.

— Lao Tzu, Tao De Ching, from Chapter 22 *

…If you want to be extraordinary, let yourself be ordinary.

With apologies to Lao Tzu, this extension seems fitting.  What is so interesting is the paradox in this, in all of the Tao de Ching. Doing by non-doing, leading by not leading.  How can this be?  I don’t pretend to have the answers. Wiser folks than I have grappled with an understanding of the words written (or not written, say some) in the 5th century B.C. by a sage (or a collection of wise men).  But what rings true here for me are two things:  the use of the word “let” and the embrace of opposites.

We are so much about doing, about controlling and making things turn out the way we plan.  This remains one of the key leadership competencies these days, being results-oriented, planful and an achiever.  All great qualities, and…does it leave room for the times when, as a leader, we actually need to let things unfold, to let others find the way, to find the flow in things?  This is the most subtle way of leadership, and not often recognized or encouraged. And yet, some of our better leaders do this, naturally, whether it’s “Level 5” leaders, or everyday ones we know who are grounded, intuitive, and aware of forces larger than themselves at work.

The embrace of opposites is fascinating. Again, this flies in the face of the “model leader” and all the things we should be.  It’s through our own humanity and imperfection that we can taste what the truth is, and what we might be.  For my part, I am learning to be content with being ordinary — without even the ulterior motive to be extraordinary.  It’s not easy, but it’s simpler.  It’s richer. It keeps me in this moment more often, not in the clouds of aspiration.  It keeps me humble.

Wisdom Gathering:  Look at one of your key goals, and restate it in these terms:  To become ….. let myself become… For example, to become an inspirational leader, let myself be an uninspired leader.  See what happens.

* Source:  Stephen Mitchell’s translation, in Real Power, by James Autry & Stephen Mitchell

(originally posted at