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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Leadership is..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others."






Connecting this quote to Lao Tzu seems like a joke. That is fitting, since the saying is humorous to begin with. One would hope that competent leadership has other qualities than restrained panic. Both "leadership" and "panic" are concepts that relate to our zeitgeist, but hardly the era of Lao Tzu.

       Regarding leaders, he talked about princes and kings, not just any kind of boss. And he would revolt against the idea that their primary talent would be the ability to hide their panic. Such a leader would not get Lao Tzu's approval.


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       He expected much more of them - primarily the understanding of Tao, the Way, and what that meant to a ruler. In short: not to act more than absolutely necessary and not demand to get credit for what one accomplished. Humility should be their primary characteristic. Chapter 39 of Tao Te Ching says (my version):


The noble must make humility his root.
The high must make the low its base.
That is why princes and kings call themselves orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
Is that not to make humility their root?


       Panic would lead to desperate measures, the worst possible scenario in Lao Tzu's view.

       The oldest source to this quote I have found (with "your ability" instead of "the ability") is from the Australian magazine Aircraft & Aerospace - Asia Pacific from the year 2000 (page 58). There the quote is accredited to the Australian rugby coach Jack Gibson. Him as the origin makes much more sense than Lao Tzu, who surely could not even imagine a sport like that.

       A slight variation of the quote can be found in a book five years older, The Key to Great Leadership from 1995, by the Canadian tennis coach Peter Burwash (page 124):


I recently read a great definition of leadership which said, "It's the ability to hide your panic from others."


       Unfortunately, Burwash did not mention where he read it. Perhaps Jack Gibson had read this book or the unspecified source to the quote.

       The oldest book with a slight variation to the quote in a Google book search is NHS Factivities: Facts and Activity News from the Natural History Survey from 1986, writing "the others" instead of just "others." It seems to be in a list of anonymous quotes, but I have not been able to examine the book.

       There is a book from 2004, which might explain how the quote got ascribed to Lao Tzu: Financially Speaking by Robert A. Leo (page 45). It ends with "everyone" instead of "others," and states the source to be anonymous. But the quote right after that one is from Lao Tzu - "To lead the people, walk behind them" (from chapter 66 of Tao Te Ching). So, others may have mixed it up when repeating the quote examined here.

       I have the impression that this is true for several fake Lao Tzu quotes circling around. Accreditations have been mixed up.

       The earliest ascertained example of the quote I have found on the Internet is on a gymnastics forum, in a comment from January 19, 2008, ascribing it to an anonymous source. The quote returns on several other websites the following years, also marking its origin as anonymous.

       The first time Lao Tzu is accredited on the web, as far as I have found, is in 2014. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, published a top-ten list of his favorite leadership quotes on November 24, 2014, where number 1 was the quote examined here. He accredited it to Lao Tzu. Maybe he read Robert A. Leo's book mentioned above, and got the accreditation wrong.

       Checking that blog post again in September 2020, I found the Lao Tzu quote removed. So, now the list only has top 10 to 2. Branson might have become aware of the quote being false.

       He also had this quote in his book The Virgin Way, published in September the same year. That's more difficult to remove.

       December 19 of that year he posted the same quote on his Twitter account, where he accidentally spelled the Chinese philosopher's name "Lao Tuz." It is possible that he misspelled the name also on his top-ten list, but corrected it later. His tweet was retweeted 1,200 times.

       A number of repetitions of the quote on other websites and some memes had the faulty spelling of Lao Tzu's name, making it clear where they got it from.

       Another Lao Tzu quote by Richard Branson is discussed in the chapter The heart that gives.

Stefan Stenudd
September 17, 2020.



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The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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