In early 2011, I gave a TEDx speech. Because I wanted my ideas around dreaming and disrupting to come alive in a way that’s not possible in writing – and because of my nagging performance anxiety – I started working with a speech coach. Since then, I’ve given a series of talks across the country. But it wasn’t until early in 2014 when I had a true breakthrough, one as much about being a great leader as it was about giving speeches.
Rather than rushing headlong through my remarks, concerned that I would lose my place, I was able to rein in my fear, stop narcissistically worrying what others would think of me, and slow my pace. As I listened to and felt the audience, my speech became a dialogue, rather than a monologue. This interplay with the audience moved from laughter to sighs to tears – an animated conversation that felt as natural as breathing. For the first time in my life, I put aside the classical musician I was trained to be, and became the jazz musician I longed to be, an improvised connection flowing between the audience and me.
Edward Slingerland’s book, Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Chinese Art and Modern Science of Spontaneity, describes the importance of allowing our minds to let go and explore a less rigidly controlled state of being: a state in which you can only win if you don’t try to win, where you effortlessly respond to a situation. This is the Taoist concept of wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way). When a person experiences wu-wei, doing difficult things such as giving a great speech or smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, feels surprisingly easy. Wu-wei can be translated as “spontaneous action,” an action that is relaxing and enjoyable in a deeply rewarding way. During my breakthrough speech earlier this year, I experienced wu-wei. I wasn’t thinking about what I would say next, and I even lost my place a few times – just as I would in a one-on-one conversation. To my surprise, my audience of fellow conversationalists stuck with me. Perhaps because I wasn’t trying to “win” – I was just trying to be really present in the room.
“One of the signals that a person is in wu-wei,” says Slingerland, “is that the person has de (pronounced duh), translated as ‘virtue’, ‘power’, or ‘charismatic power.'” They don’t need to issue threats or offer rewards because others want to follow them. If you have de, people like you, trust you, and relax around you. This is the payoff of wu-wei. When your generosity is sincere, you draw people to you, and are, in effect, charismatic. If you can reach a state of wu-wei, you’ll get de. Quoting from Lao-Tzu:
“Demanding nothing in return for his kindness, the sage eventually obtains everything;
The sage does not accumulate things,
Yet the more he gives to others, the more he has himself.
Having given to others, he is richer still.”
My father-in-law was a farmer from a small town in Idaho, a quiet man of small means. He was no Taoist, but his seven children and thirty-five grandchildren trusted him completely and relaxed when they were around him. Having given much to others, he was rich with charisma.
For many of us, charisma is more of a struggle – or something that waxes and wanes over time. Another man very close to me, a James Garner doppelganger, is a charming law school graduate who married a model. At thirty, he was all wu-wei and de. But as he has grown older, this is no longer true. With age, he seems to have forgotten the power of giving.
Because trying not to try really is a paradox, there is no foolproof solution to experiencing wu-wei. But there are strategies. In an e-mail exchange with Slingerland, he advised, “Going into that important meeting? If you aren’t fully prepared, with your presentation clearly mapped out in your mind, a little Confucian carving and polishing is in order: try and try and eventually it will become effortless. If you are prepared, and your problem is nerves or expectations, you need more of the Daoist “not trying” strategy: relax your body beforehand with a bout of exercise, empty your mind, and focus on your breaths before you go in.” This allows you to stop worrying about yourself and what people will think of you, and be absorbed by the someone in front of you.
True leaders are absorbed in something much bigger than self. My husband’s father was a leader. I only really understood this after he passed away. Because he gave with no expected payoff, as he advanced in age, people were increasingly drawn to him, experiencing their own version of wu-wei in his presence.
The more we give, the more we have; the more we let go, the more we actually control. When we stop trying, we will have more charisma than we had imagined. And if we are real leaders, we’ll immediately give that power away.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review.