In Everyday Tao: Living in Balance and Harmony, the Chinese American author, artist, and teacher Deng Ming-Dao writes, “The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.” Deng describes the import of acceptance while also being unwavering. His most critical point is that “wherever you are on your path, it is always valid. All inquiry and action begin with you.”
Many followers of Taoism, a centuries-old philosophy that is sometimes referred to as the way of the water, believe that life is akin to a river; like the river, life runs through its channel, and while we are able to have some influence over its course, we never have complete control of it. Indeed, when we consider the nature of its beginning, its perpetual motion, other tributaries and streams that connect with each other through the watershed, or ecosystem strains impacting its patterns and qualities, it’s clear we have little and, in some instances, no dominion over the circumstances and subsequent motion that are set for us. The Taoist story of the old farmer demonstrates this perspective and is summarized as follows:
An old farmer who had been cultivating his land for many years owned a horse. “You are so lucky to have this horse so that it could pull the cart for you,” his neighbor said. “Perhaps,” the farmer replied.
A few days later, the latch securing the gate where the horse was being kept came loose and the horse ran away. After hearing the news, the neighbor came to visit. “What incredible bad luck,” he said sympathetically. “Perhaps,” the farmer replied.
A week passes and the horse that ran away returns bringing with it a harras of wild horses. As the farmer’s son is corralling them, the neighbor returns and exclaims, “Oh, what wonderful luck!” The farmer replies, “Perhaps.”
The following month while the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he was thrown off and broke his leg. Without the son’s help, the crop’s yield significantly diminishes. “Such bad luck to return all over again,” the neighbor stated. “Perhaps,” the farmer replied.
While the son was still recuperating from his injuries, a war broke out between two rival factions of the country. In need of additional soldiers, military officials were sent to the farmer’s village to conscript young men for the war effort. When they arrived, seeing that the young man’s leg was broken, the captain exempted him and moved on to the next village. Hearing that the son was not taken from him and eventually returned to good health, the neighbor congratulated the farmer, “What great luck how things worked out for you.” “Perhaps,” said the farmer.
The farmer’s parable could go on ad infinitum, with each successive situation being interpreted as either a “windfall” or a “disaster.” These interpretations generally shape how we feel and, in turn, determines how we respond. The central message, however, is that those judgments are for naught because we can never truly know the impact of a particular chain of events. There are no conclusive positives or negatives per se, rather only what has happened and the choice we make in response. The actual significance, therefore, of any specific event cannot be understood at the time that it is occurring. Viewed in this more holistic sense, there are no final outcomes, only new aspects of our journey that can (in the short or long term) influence future events. Considering the ups and downs that a court manager experiences over the course of her career, what can she draw from the allegory to help her stay on course knowing that the path itself is not within her control, but important all the same? To what advantage does it serve her to manage the court without judging and interpreting every single event?
Toni and I were scheduled to go out for brunch, but she asked that I pick her up at home because our regular diner was in the same direction. With the morning weather turning out to be picture perfect, Toni also wanted to get some extra gardening done. True to her word, I found her tending to her tomatoes. Between preparing and cultivating the soil, planting and watering, regular weeding and pruning, to finally harvesting and jarring, it was an enormous amount of work, but she savored growing and eating her own food. To her, it was well worth it. Toni was hunched over a vine that had grown through the metal round frames she placed in the center of each trunk to support the hefty plants. She had a basil leaf folded in half and placed behind the flap of her ear that she would occasionally smell while picking through the harvest. I walked up to the gate and rested my arms on it, saying “Looks wonderful Toni—I can barely see you behind that bonanza of vegetables!”
“I’m almost done,” she said. “I just want to finish collecting these and see how my string beans are doing” she said plucking a beefmaster and placing it into the large wooden trug beside her.
“Take your time Toni—there’s no rush.”
“Thanks. There’s some herbal tea in that kettle—pour yourself a cup.”
“Thank you,” I replied. I walked over to the patio adjacent to the herb area of the garden where she had cut and sifted her own amalgam of organic peaches and botanicals to make the tea. She placed the kettle on top of the granite center stone of the round table made of bamboo lamellas. I poured the blend into one of the two mugs she had on the table and took a sip.
As I sat down taking in her horticultural landscape, I asked “How long have you’ve been gardening Toni?”
“No—I mean as a diversionary kind of activity,” I clarified.
“You could probably say since I was a little girl. Although back then it was more of a matter of necessity than pastime,” Toni said as she got up, picked up the trug of produce, and made her way toward the gate.
“Your family relied on it to eat?” I asked putting my mug down and walking over to the gate to open it for her.
“Sit—relax,” she said waving me off while pushing it open. She walked over to the table and placed the trug on the retaining wall behind me before sitting down and pouring herself a mug of the peach brew. “Well, it supplemented our diet, that’s for sure. And my father would sell or barter items he grew. It was a difficult period, but we survived using whatever resources at our disposal. That basket there is for you—so don’t forget it before we leave.” She pointed to the other end of the retaining wall where she had placed it.
I walked over to look at the generous bounty she was supplying. The basket was filled with a medley of small and medium-sized mason jars that included her preserves of apples, peaches, figs, and boysenberries, along with various homemade marinades of green tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. “Your love for gardening shows,” I said.
“I enjoy it,” she admitted. “There’s a hypnotic energy that I draw from digging into the earth. I feel in unison with it and in that stillness, I find peace.”
“You can probably say that it grounds you—no pun intended,” I replied.
“Yes, you most definitely can explain it that way. There are few things that you can control from the point of designing the space to growing and harvesting the food, strolling through on occasion, and then sitting here in all this tranquility and eating the food directly from the vine.” As I sat back down to finish my tea, Toni asked, “So, are we celebrating today, or have you not gotten word yet?” in reference to the recent promotion that I was expecting a decision on.
“No celebration, Toni. I didn’t get it,” I stated bluntly.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah—me too. I’m incredibly disappointed by it. I really saw myself getting the job.”
“So, what’s your next move?” Toni asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t see the end the way I initially visualized it.”
“Give it some time. As trite as it may sound, I have often found that things have a way of working themselves out.”
“I know, but it’s still discouraging.”
We sat there in silence for a minute or two when Toni asked, “Did I ever tell you about the time that I worked in Germany?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“I lived and worked there for three years.”
“When I was first married.”
“So before immigrating here.”
“Yes—in fact, I’d probably still be in Germany if my visa wasn’t denied. At the time, I was very disappointed to say the least.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. We accepted it, returned home, and eventually immigrated to the United States instead.”
“Ha—so it turned out okay.”
“I’d like to think so, but my point is that circumstances that initially appear as a hardship can put you in a better place than if it didn’t happen.”
“You just don’t know though.”
“No—you don’t. Life is not perfect despite what you see on Facebook. We don’t always get what we want. What should’ve, could’ve, would’ve happened, doesn’t matter. And whatever or whomever has thrown you off track doesn’t matter either. What does matter is you pushing forward and doing the best you can to transcend your circumstances.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you.”
“It’s never easy when things aren’t going according to plan, but my planning is never done in ink. I take it one day at a time and adapt. This also forces me to stay in the present and enjoy my experiences—particularly when things are ostensibly going well, because in life the bad days are never lacking.”
“But doesn’t this go against your advice on thinking things through and having a plan?”
“I’m not suggesting that you don’t plan. What I am saying is that you don’t become incapacitated if your plan doesn’t come to fruition. Life is unpredictable—it’s important to be agile and to learn to succeed within what is always a tentative framework. Rather than focusing on any high or low point of your journey, think about how you can instead use all of your experiences to move forward.”
“The big picture,” I stated.
“Yes—if you keep this perspective you will always find yourself where you need to be. Worse-case scenario—you always know where to find me in case you have any questions about where you should be,” Toni bantered.
“Thanks Toni—believe it or not that makes me feel better, even if you were being facetious.”
“I was making light of it, but I’m not being disingenuous. Always remember that after you’ve done the best you can, if you were meant to be someplace else, you’d already be there.”
VUCA is an acronym used by the U.S. Army to describe the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous state of the world. It has since been applied in a variety of management contexts where leaders counterbalance VUCA by adhering to the following:
- Volatility with Vision—create focus by instilling a vision and values in the organization so that changes can be responded to efficiently.
- Uncertainty with Understanding—anticipate potential threats and draw benefits from new opportunities.
- Complexity with Clarity—communicate clearly and encourage collaboration among stakeholders.
- Ambiguity with Agility—remain adaptable by adhering and promoting lifelong learning practices.
Responding to VUCA reminds me of “negative capability”—a concept developed by the poet John Keats. When applied to the practice of management, negative capability enables a manager to remain openminded and pursue her vision notwithstanding the “pain and confusion of not knowing” beset by an uncertain end.
Vince Lombardi, considered by many to be one of the greatest coaches in the history of American sports, asserted a balanced perspective believing that “the spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.” Strive as we might, we cannot control for all circumstances, but the facility by which we chart a course despite that reality is interestingly what makes all the difference. In fact, some would argue the very reason that the organization has managers is because things do not ordinarily proceed as planned. While a court manager cannot control for every situation, she can (and should) look for opportunities in every situation, even if the inclination is to label events as positive or negative. Planning is certainly important, but not to the extent that the plan becomes a fixed scheme that prevents the manager from responding to unpredictable change. Moreover, valuable time should not be squandered brooding over perceived setbacks. A good court manager has negative capability who charts her course in the way Deng described the moon. She tolerates and even thrives in the uncertainty that comes with making a plan because she always drafts it with a pencil that has a good eraser.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.