shopify analytics



October 2014


Tao Te Ching


by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1992).


What are the big take-aways?


Mitchell’s is a crisp modern translation of The Book of the Way, written by a Chinese philosopher who lived perhaps in the 6th century B.C. or a little bit later.  The Tao Te Ching is – as Mitchell writes in his introduction (page vii) – “the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.”


The big-take-away for leaders, or for those who “govern,” is that force invites counterforce, and that the most effective way to lead is not to try to control people and events.  In the final of the 81 verses that comprise the Tao, Lao Tsu expresses this sentiment:  “The Tao nourishes by not forcing./By not dominating, the Master leads.”  (And what is the Tao?  In verse 4, it is described in this manner: “The Tao is like a well:/ used but never used up./It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. /It is hidden but always present./I don’t know who gave birth to it./It is older than God.”)


Why do I like it?


I first read the Tao Te Ching (in English) at Middlebury College in the 1980’s, where I took a lot of East Asian Studies courses.  As with many works of ageless, paradigm-shifting and transcendent literature, the Tao means quite different things to me each time I return to it.  Until I included the Tao on the list for my current Leadership Book Group, I hadn’t re-read the Tao in its entirety since I became a leadership coach.


What I liked and admired about the Tao this time, reviewing it closely through the lens of my current work, was its emphases on: looking inward for wisdom and vision; being authentic in action and decision; operating from a stance of generosity, trust and peace; and teaching simplicity, patience and compassion.


In what situations would this be useful?


In many respects the Tao would be most useful as a guide for people interested in helping to propel massive, innovative and collaborative “leaderless” movements (such as Occupy Wall Street and the like).  For example, one of the most famous verses in the Tao is number 17:


When the Master governs, the people

Are hardly aware that he exists.

Next best is a leader who is loved.

Next, one who is feared.

The worst is one who is despised.


If you don’t trust the people,

You make them untrustworthy.


The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

The people say, “Amazing:

We did it, all by ourselves!”


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


For me, the Tao’s use of paradox is evocative of research involving the intersections between adult development theory and leadership (my “go-to” introduction to these ideas is Rooke and Torbert’s “Seven Transformations of Leadership” article from the Harvard Business Review, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).  The connections I am making here are that the abilities to think and act within ambiguity and paradox are indicative of later-stage adult development and are also correlated with leadership effectiveness.


Also, for whatever it’s worth, the other two works we’re reading in my Leadership Book Group – the theme of which is “The More Things Change...Ancient Wisdom for Leaders” – are Kautilya’s Arthashastra (4th century B.C. India) and Plato’s The Republic (4th century B.C. Greece).


Return to Leadership Library