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Insight Cascades, pt. 4 — Tao

Published: 2022-10-03

The best definition of leadership ever written. What's missing from the concept of flow?

David Foster Wallace wrote the best description of leadership I’ve come across. It’s pretty long so I put it behind this pretty button.

This isn’t a post about leadership specifically, but that above snippet captures a lot of the good stuff I want to explore here.

There are remarkable parallels between modern neuroscience and ancient philosophical writings, which also tie to the concepts of flow, intuition and the two hemispheres of the brain discussed earlier in this series of posts.

The ideal person in early China is more like a well-trained athlete or a cultivated artist, rather than a dispassionate cost-benefit analyzer. The ideal person in Western philosophy is not only disembodied but also radically alone.

Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try.

There’s probably something to using myths, quotes and stories as tools to realign ourselves with what’s meaningful and durable. What has stood the test of time is likely to contain something valuable. Time probability over ensemble probability. Lindy.

One of the things that has survived comes from ancient China: Tao, the way of the universe.

Everything is connected and nothing makes sense by itself. If this sounds a bit out there, bear with me, I’ll keep it short. The two key concepts to understand are wu wei and de.

Wu wei is an ability to move through the physical and social world in a completely spontaneous manner. People in wu wei have de, a radiance that others can detect, an outward signal that one is in wu wei. Because spontaneity is hard to fake, we intuit that people with de are trustworthy and authentic.

These concepts tie very deeply to the opening snippet on leadership. We know it when we see it.

I have had maybe about a dozen immediate bosses at different places, including in a military environment in the Finnish woods, office environments in the City of London and Helsinki, as well as a gas station. The part about how “incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it” actually made me chuckle out loud when I first encountered the snippet. It’s precisely true.

This sort of charismatic power seems to me like a social manifestation of the flow state, perhaps a higher form of it. The capability to make all of us “do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own” is very valuable in just about any setting, especially when you need the find that extra something in yourself to push through a boundary.

It’s also not tied to the context of leadership, a master craftsman embodies all of these traits. The key here is connections and relations, high-impact effortlessness in a social context. It’s flowing with living things, where meaning is being made.

It’s nothing, yet it’s everything.

For the final chapter of this series, see here.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita