Chapter 68: Heaven’s Lead
“The best captain doesn’t rush in front.
The fiercest fights doesn’t bluster.
The big winner isn’t competing.
The best boss takes a low footing.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Reality television is easy to dismiss as trash, and much of it surely is, but sometimes it appeals for good reasons: it transmits elemental truths about human nature. The show Undercover Boss is a case in point. In the show, company executives in large companies don the garb of their peasant workers and are forced to walk in their shoes for a day. In place of a number or a name on a spread sheet, they encounter a person. They take a “low footing.”
The result can be shock, anguish, compassion, anger, disgust, admiration, pride. But it’s not any particular emotion that’s important. What’s important is the reversal of roles, the shift in perspective, and the karmic effects on the organization as a whole. When the master becomes the slave, he can see himself as the slave sees him. When the king becomes the fool, he sees the downstream results of his rule. When the lord becomes a serf, he has to smell the horseshit.
It’s like Carnival without the party. Without regular Carnival in a psyche or a society, you get spiritual sclerosis: the natural flow and exchange of energies is blocked, the parts lose their connection to the whole, and players become identified with their role. Carnival catalyzes collective catharsis.
One problem with our current culture is the fetishization of “leadership.” One of the strengths in traditional cultures is they preach the virtues of following—of being part of a team, playing your role, deferring to established ways of doing things, trusting in the wisdom of the past and the group, maintaining vigilance against the temptation to slip into arrogance, pride, self-aggrandizement. The the individualistic, achievement-oriented culture of modernity, however, we are driven to compete, to win, to climb to the top of whatever hierarchy we are thrown into or choose to enter. Lionel Trilling once wisely said that America is fundamentally a business civilization, but this ethos is hardly restricted to business. It has throughly saturated higher education. Ask a college president that their institution hopes to instill in its charges, and you will likely be told “leadership.”
The funny thing about this notion of leadership is that, first, it is unconsciously conformist. We are all on the same team: competing against each other. When loud cries for “leadership” abound, expect following to be in high fashion. The second is that it’s against the laws of the universe. In a body, every cell trying to do its own thing and run the show is called cancer. The leaders will always be a minority. And while leadership skills can surely, to varying extents, be developed or taught, there are such a thing as natural born leaders. It is a mark of how far a culture has strayed from common sense that it needs to be commonly stated.
But there is a subtler form of leadership indicated by today’s passage. Father Richard Rohr has a wonderful phrase for the prophetic position: the person who is “on the edge of the inside.” They orbit the periphery of the group, getting a sense of the whole and the parts, the high and the low, the strong and the weak, the center and the margins. They are in the group but not of it. They keep one eye on the group, but one eye on the unknown territory beyond it. They know that the energy beyond, beneath, around the group is what secretly sustains it, that the flow of ideas within is more important than the stock. And when that flow gets arrested, they will seek out the acupuncture points to release the blockages. They can see and take responsibility for the system because they are not fixated on their place and position within it. Because this way of leading is not about rank or title or position, it is open to everyone.
But it demands a disciplined following.
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