When I began authoring this philosophy statement, I selected water as an adaptable visual metaphor that could shoulder numerous, even paradoxical, leadership concepts coherently. Without becoming strained or absurd, water is the best solution and medium to convey my approach to leadership.
No less an authority on the state of human affairs than the revered Chinese thinker, Laozi, saw the best human qualities reflected in properties of water (Lee, Han, Byron, and Fan. 2008). In the Dao De Jing, Laozi wrote:
“Why is the best like water? In his writings, Laozi used water as a metaphor many times to explain the leadership style of a sage. More specifically, water is altruistic and always serves others; water is modest, flexible, clear, soft, yet powerful (or persistent) (Lee, 2003, 2004).” (Chen, 2008). Furthermore, in the early chapters of Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, I found confirmation of this impulse to explore water as metaphor for leadership. Wheatley hints, too, at the call that animates an effective leader’s decision-making:
If gravity alone were responsible for one’s course, the listening servant leader could be pulled by conscience or necessity into innumerable weighty opportunities to serve. That work, however worthy, may not be the right work for us. Parker Palmer notes:
That is to say, we may suffer dislocation and exhaustion if we choose to pour ourselves into a thirsty basin. The practice of Ignatian discernment, however, gives proper direction to our decision making. Solomon’s collected wisdom tells us:
Our choices, guided by humble practice of Ignatian discernment, bring our actions in line with that flow by which God’s will is manifested in our lives. The leader’s course gains energy through its obedience to the Sea.
I conclude that water and lessons derived from observing its behavior, nature, and effects are a legitimate course for distilling and describing a coherent philosophy of good leadership. The “wateristic” leader embodies and exhibits the best affective elements and behaviors of adaptive, authentic, servant, and transformational leadership approaches, (Northouse, Chapters 8-11) and of exemplary followers (Northouse, Ch. 12).
* Water nurtures and lifts up. Life relies on water for growth and sustenance, for which water gains nothing. So, too, organizational life looks to altruistic and compassionate leadership for those qualities that foster individual and organizational development, growth, and well-being. Being compassionate, the leader is attentive to the needs of, and sensitive to the plight of others; the leader builds relationships that engender a sense of confidence, engagement, and commitment.
* Water is soft, yet persistent; the good leader likewise is modest and humble, and yet can exert great influence through persuasion.
Exhibiting a servant’s heart, the good leader puts the well-being of followers first, empowering them to reach their full potential.
* Water is clear and transparent, as well as reflective. An authentic leader is honest and open, exhibiting relational transparency and engendering trust. In mirrorlike fashion, a good leader also reflects expressed group values, commitment to purpose and leads by consistent example. The leader reflects inwardly on their own processes with self-awareness and understanding for the effect they have on others.
* Water is receptive, whether we consider the sea which accepts each river’s flow, or a heavy torrent accumulating silt and debris. When still, the laden river deposits its load to create new landscapes and structures.
* Water is flexible and adaptable; it can flow around obstacles and conform to any container or environment. Likewise, a good leader must be able to adapt, if not actually anticipate and prepare for, changes in the environment that will affect their organization.
* Perhaps most importantly, water is obedient to the pull of the King of Streams.
The leader who takes their cue from the many beneficial and noble qualities of life-giving water is an asset to their organization and community. I will endeavor to emulate the adaptive flow, gentle persuasion, inexorable strength, clarity, nurturing care, and receptivity that the idea of water-as-metaphor for good leadership embodies.
Wheatley, M.J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd Edition). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Chen, C and Lee, Y. (2008). Leadership and Management in China: Philosophies, Theories, and Practices. Kindle Edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Palmer, P.J. (2007). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
The Holy Bible. New American Standard version [NASB]. (1971/2020). La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation
Kouzes, J and Posner, B. (2017) The Leadership Challenge (6th Edition). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Tzu, Lao; Legge, James. (1891/1989) Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins
Northouse, P.G. (2019) Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Michelle L Binker is a servant leader in training and resident of Southern Oregon