Courage to Change: Ancient Wisdom Applied to Authentic Leadership

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Change is a constant we all face in life. 

Learning how to ride the waves of change and navigate the shifting waters brings us into harmony with life so we can partner with it instead of fighting it. This series of Courage to Change wisdom lessons will bring you new insight into how to live a life that moves you consistently toward greater harmony with life itself. The level of harmony we have internally measures the level of influence and impact that have on ourselves and the world around us.

In this series, you will find I lean upon wisdom from ancient leadership books such as the Tao Te Ching written thousands of years ago by philosopher, Lao Tzu. 

Embracing Change through the Wisdom of Lao Tzu and Authentic Leadership

Change, as we navigate through the ebbs and flows of life and leadership, often finds its catalyst in either pain or pleasure. Lao Tzu reminds us, “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

Mastery of self comes through learning to understand ourselves and our relationship to change. It's been said that there are two perspectives.  Change either happens to us, or it happens for us.  Which perspective one chooses will greatly shape the individual's relationship with change.  Whether one chooses to change out of fear or love also significantly influences how one navigates the uncertain waters of life.

My goal with this series of articles on change is to give you thoughtful wise perspectives, tools, and resources to navigate your uncertain waters.  We are all in the river of life.  Sometimes the river resembles the whitewater rapids of the Colorado River in the Rockies and sometimes it resembles the lazy palm-tree-lined river.  No matter which river you are in learning how to masterfully navigate the river is key to enjoying the experience of life and leadership!

The Emotional Spectrum: Understanding Emotions as Guides

One key resource we all have as a river guide is our emotions.  However, if we have not developed a relationship or understanding of our emotions it may be tempting to ignore the voice of this wise guide.  Authentic leaders recognize the beauty in the spectrum of human emotions.  Emotional regulation then, is not about having one consistent emotion but learning to read and surf the vast array of our emotions as messengers and signals.  

There are no good or bad, right or wrong emotions.  They are just energy with a message.  Brene Brown, author, and happiness teacher shares in her book Atlas of the Heart that most individuals can name only three emotions:  "happy, sad, and pissed off."

Expanding our emotional vocabulary helps us understand our emotions clearer and therefore have a clearer understanding of what change that emotion is inviting.  For the best comprehensive list of emotions that I've found in my work check out this list used in The Work by Byron Katie!

In another segment of this series, we will look more in-depth at how emotions can be our most helpful guides.

Change: A Growth from Within

On the river of change, it can be tempting to blame the river or the geography of the river for the challenges we encounter.  The water is moving too fast (or maybe too slow!), the water is too deep or too shallow, and the bottom is too rocky or too sandy.  

Transformational change never occurs by demanding the river of life be different than it is. It only occurs when one is willing to look inward.  Growth comes from being willing to examine one's personal foundation, values, skillset, mindset inner confidence.

True change, from the perspective of authentic leadership, echoes Lao Tzu’s principle of doing without doing (wu wei), suggesting that the most profound transformations arise not from external alterations but from an internal evolution of being.

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom,”

Lao Tzu taught. It’s about shedding external labels and reconnecting with the wisdom within, allowing leaders to guide with genuine insight and empathy.

A key pivot point happens in life and leadership when one begins to trust their internal wisdom and intuitive voice first instead of acting primarily from the advice or influence of others.  For a great real-world example of this check out the 2023 movie "AIR" which tells the story of NIKE.

Revisiting Our Roots with Lao Tzu’s Insight

Our formative years shape us.  The families, cultures, and communities we are raised in, the religious ways we are taught -- they condition us to think the ways we think, and to value the things we value.  Individuals raised in the United States are far more likely to fall prey to the Hustle and Grind, your value equals what you do myth that is prevalent in the US cultural "waters"  than someone raised in a country that values being overdoing.  I was once a part of a European women's group and they religiously disconnected for the summer holidays!  This meme is one of my favorites that reflects the cultural differences:

Lao Tzu encourages us to look deeper, to “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” Authentic leaders, therefore, are encouraged to revisit and refine their foundational beliefs not as a pursuit of what’s missing, but as a celebration of the wisdom they already possess and as a way to unwind the unhelpful ways they were conditioned by the past. 

The ideas that we are lacking, or that something is lacking are forms of conditioning most often based on our early experiences in life when we lacked the discernment to evaluate the words and actions of others.  The self-doubt and second-guessing come not from your true authentic self, but from the shaping of others on your path.

Lao Tze is encouraging us to remember who we are underneath the conditioning as that pure spirit lacks no thing at all. 

The Motivation for Change and Leadership

Lao Tzu reflected, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” This encapsulates the drive for change among authentic leaders — the understanding that letting go of outdated self-perceptions opens the pathway to realizing one’s full potential, both as an individual and a leader.  We are the primary ones who hold us back.  Our thinking patterns sabotage our natural gifts and talents. 

We all have cognitive distortions to varying degrees, often influenced by our conditioning. Those thinking traps, or saboteurs as the Positive Intelligence framework calls them, prevent us from fully embodying our strengths.  It's only when you stand strong and true to your authentic gifts that you can fully serve the greater good of humanity.

Are you motivated by using all of your experiences, strengths, and capabilities in service to others? or are you driven by a need for perfectionism and achievement?

Perfectionism and striving to achieve are often motivated by an internal sense of needing to be what someone else wants or expects us to be.  It’s only when we can fully embrace who we already are underneath the conditioning – with no need to polish or fix  – that we can then lead through any circumstance that arises with a strong inner confidence that outward circumstances don’t jeopardize our inner being.


Recognizing the Time for Change with Lao Tzu’s Guidance

Identifying the need for change in one’s life and leadership can be illuminated by Lao Tzu’s wisdom, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” It’s a call for mindful reflection on our current paths and the courage to adjust our course toward greater fulfillment and impact.

Awareness that change is needed often arrives in the form of a conflict, growing misalignment, or at times from an invitation to something that one senses is far more in alignment. All choices of change require the letting go of one path and the adjustment to another. 

To come back to our river analogy -- you can let your canoe be pushed around and spun around by the rapids -- or you can pick up your paddle and learn to steer with intention.  Where you are now is a product of all the choices you have made up to this point.  Where you are tomorrow or two years from now is a product of the choices you make today.

The Journey of Change: A Path of Least Resistance

In embracing change, Lao Tzu’s concept of flowing with the Tao, or the natural order of the world, reminds us that sometimes the most powerful actions are those taken in alignment with our true nature, rather than against it. This philosophy supports the authentic leader’s journey towards transformation — a process not of striving against the current but of navigating it with wisdom and ease.

This shift comes when an authentic leader decides to lead based on their values, purpose, and desires, instead of following a prescribed path.  It’s a shift from external pressure to internal alignment. 

Are you intentionally making your own choices today?  or do you feel caught up in the current of a river you never wanted to be in?  When we make choices in alignment with our greatest good life gets simpler and more enjoyable because there is nothing to resist.

Conclusion: Embodying Lao Tzu’s Wisdom in Leadership

As we embark on this exploration of change through the lens of authentic leadership, let us carry with us Lao Tzu’s reminder: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” It speaks to the essence of authentic leadership — guiding not by asserting dominance but by empowering others, embodying the change we wish to see, and walking the path with humility and purpose.



Vicki Haddock is an author,  professional leadership coach, and inspirer of others to live their best thriving lives!  Ready to dive in deeper but not sure where to start?  Consider Registering for the Self-Checkin that Vicki hosts quarterly or grabbing a copy of her book Confidence Unchained!


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