Leaders, Honor Thy People

By Terrence Seamon

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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Everyone has heard the oft-quoted maxim about leadership from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism and author of The Tao Te Ching:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

But how many of you have ever read the entire quote? Here it is.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, and worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people; They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done and his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

Did you notice in the full passage the parts that are almost never quoted?

Fail to honor people; They fail to honor you.

Honor Means to Hold in Esteem

Honor is a word we have all heard, but one that is infrequently used in everyday discourse. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Honor means to hold in esteem. When you go to court and stand before a judge, you address her as “your honor.” Act inappropriately while you are there, and the judge may “hold you in contempt of the court.” In essence, your disrespect dishonored the court.

In Lao Tzu’s view, the best leader talks little. If the leader isn’t talking, he must be listening. So what did Lao Tzu mean when he said that leaders must not fail to honor their people? Looking again at the expanded passage above, some clues glimmer.

  • In Lao Tzu’s view, the best leader does not insist upon obedience. If the leader isn’t making people obey him, he must be liberating them.
  • In Lao Tzu’s view, the best leader does not seek acclaim. If the leader isn’t seeking acclaim for himself, he must be lifting his people up.

Listening, liberating, and lifting up. Are sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When a loving couple stands before a minister to be married, their vow to each other often contains the phrase “to love, honor, and cherish.”

Leadership Vow

Perhaps we should adopt this practice in organizations. Imagine if leaders took a vow to honor their people. A vow to hold their people in the highest regard. Something similar to this:

I your leader, vow to honor you. I vow to listen to you at all times, to hear your concerns, your ideas, to learn from you. I will listen to you even when my mind is made up. I vow to empower you, to provide the support you need to be successful in the tasks you have been assigned to perform. I will recognize and appreciate your strengths and values. I will trust you and respect you for the contributions you make to our organization and our customers. I vow to be there for you, when the going gets tough, when we are all under pressure. I vow to back you up when you make a decision, to stand by you when the heat is on. I will not let you down. I vow to lift you up in praise as often as possible so that you know how important you are! I vow to hold you in the highest esteem because I know that I cannot do it alone.

Is such a vow realistic? Though many marriages break up and end in divorce, many do not. Having taken that marriage vow, they are reminded of the meaning of their marriage.

When they find themselves tested, they are strengthened. Their vow to love, honor, and cherish fortifies them, helping them to put aside their own agendas, overcome their differences, and focus on what they are building together.

In Lao Tzu’s view, this is the approach and strategy of the best leader. By doing all of this, his work will be accomplished, and his aim will be fulfilled. And the people will proudly say, “We did this ourselves.”

Three-Part Maxim

Elsewhere in the sayings of Lao Tzu, we find this three-part maxim that leaders would do well to ponder:

I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.

Lao Tzu

How many so-called leaders do exactly the opposite? When the leader puts himself first, he is on the way to being despised by his people.

In Buddhist thought, the greeting Namaste means “I bow in honor of the divine within you.” Not far from the Christian response, “Et cum spiritu tuo.” And with your spirit.

The Western Buddhist guru Ram Dass expanded on the meaning of Namaste with this poem:

I honor the place in you
in which the entire universe dwells.
I honor the place in you
which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace.
I honor the place in you where,
if you are in that place in you,
and I am in that place in me,
there is only one of us.

What Can Your Leaders Do To Honor Their People?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Terrence Seamon
Terrence Seamon
Terry is the author of To Your Success! a motivational guide for those in career transition and a leadership development trainer and coach based in central New Jersey.
  • It caught me to think of “Ls” associated with Lao & leadership: listening, liberating, lifting, learning.

  • Ron Whitaker says:

    Terry, the Leadership Vow really puts things in perspective – what a powerful tool to share with clients. An excellent model of how to be a great leader.

  • Terrence Seamon says:

    Glad the L’s caught your attention, Patti. They make up a powerful formula for leaders.

    Thanks, Ron. Glad to have the opportunity to be one of your guest contributors.

    • Sir, this vow is excellent. Praying I can use this for my co-workers.

  • JT Pedersen says:

    Hello Terrence,

    Great piece. One of the best articles, about an undervalued topic, that I’ve read in some time.

    You might find it interesting to read Amy Lyman’s new book, The Trust Worthy Leader. I’m reviewing it right now and is likely something you’ll find of interest.


  • Terrence Seamon says:

    Thanks, JT, both for the praise and the referral to Amy Lyman’s new book. I will be writing a book on leadership soon too, tentative title “Lead the Way.” Stay tuned.

  • Anonomous says:

    If you do not let them know that you did it they will believe that they did it themself. That does not sound like a bad thing for the leader, because they will know what she/he did.

  • Great Post! I had heard (and even used) this quote before but knew there was more to it. I was looking for a general summary of the rest of the story – your insight was an added bonus. Thanks.

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