The Tao of Leadership

Tao Te Ching: 59

In caring for others and serving heaven,
There is nothing like using restraint.
Restraint beings with giving up one’s own ideas.
This depends on virtue being gathered in the past.
If there is a good store of virtue, then nothing is impossible.
If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.
If a man knows no limits, then he is fit to be a ruler.
The mother principle of ruling holds good for a long time.
This is called having deep roots and a firm foundation.
The Tao of long life and eternal vision.

–trans. Jane English

A wood in autumn. The day is gray, but warm and close; golden leaves are falling onto the rich earth. It has just finished raining, and the scent of damp soil is intoxicating.

Captain’s Log

ire4.18.2010This vision came to me as I was meditating on these lines from the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu’s verse may seem to apply only to kings, rulers, and generals, and one might think that they would be of limited applicability today; but in fact every verse of the Tao Te Ching offers food for thought in many modern situations. Leadership is something that can be thrust upon you whether you want it or not. You may find yourself in charge of the team at work, or sharing responsibility as the leader of a family. But even if you live by yourself on a desert island, you are, unavoidably, the only captain of your soul.

Lao Tzu advocates a very hands-off approach to leadership. A perfect leader, in his view, doesn’t lead so much as set a good example. A king who spends too much time issuing orders, watching his subjects carefully, and meddling in their affairs will soon find himself with a population that is cunning, stealthy, backstabbing and traitorious. On the other hand, a king who leaves his people alone, allows them to live their lives without interference, and sets a good example of virtuous behavior, will find himself with a people who are prosperous, happy, forthright, and beloved of heaven.

On the face of it, it appears to be quite a libertarian philosophy, one that would appeal to the framers of the U.S. Constitution. But an important part of it — one that’s addressed specifically in this passage — is the cultivation of virtue by the leader, which not only sets a good example, but leads to “no limits”, “long life” and “eternal vision”. We’re way out beyond the U.S. Constitution here, but it’s still all pretty groovy stuff. But what does this mean, exactly? What is this virtue that should be cultivated?

Here I got stuck. The Tao seemed to be silent on this point. But the image of autumn soil, which I received in meditation, gave me part of the key.

The Virtue in the Earth

In the meditation, the soil is the leader, the ruler. It is itself the accumulation of virtue. Its richness and depth come from its past experiences; anything can grow in it if it is rich enough. Nothing is impossible — there are no limits. It literally facilitates deep roots; it is the epitome of a good foundation. The soil may appear to be the Blank Slate upon which the story of life is written, a but in fact it is the Source, the sustenance, and the wellspring of life.

The good ruler, then — whether ruling a country, a work team, a family, or the self — does not step out in front and take charge. Rather, Lao Tzu says, the leader stands behind, offering service as an exemplar and a resource. Just as the quality and the characteristics of the soil determine the richness of the harvest and the plants that flourish, leaders influence outcomes through the quality of their own virtue — the examples and the resources that they offer.

Doing Nothing, Leaving Nothing Undone

This principle is easy to extend to real-life situations. When you are entrusted with the leadership of a team at work, think about the goals that need to be accomplished, line up the resources that the team will need to achieve these goals, lay out the situation to the team, and then get out of the way and allow the team to get to work. If you’re raising a family, lay down firm rules and boundaries or your children, provide them with an environment appropriate to their safety, be available for them when they need you, and then get out of the way and let them explore and grow, self-directed, at their own pace.

Most eye-opening for me, I think, is applying this advice to the stewardship of your soul — personal development. It’s suggested very strongly that trying to achieve goals through careful planning of step-by-step projects and willpower is far from the best way to go; instead, one should carefully lay out the goals you have in mind, gather the resources you need, establish a fertile environment for achieving those goals, and then get out of the way and wait to see what happens. Your body, mind, heart, and spirit, given the tools and the workshop, will do a better job working organically together to reach those goals than your ego can accomplish by fiat.

You Cannot BECOME Virtuous

We’re still left with the question we started with, however, which is: what is this virtue that is the treasure of the effective leader? For soil, it’s clear what virtue is: the nutrients, the aeration, the water table, etc. — all the things that make soil rich and pregnant with possibility. But what is the analogue for a human being? What constitutes richness for a person? And most importantly — how may a person become virtuous?

Well, what does soil do to become virtuous? Obviously the answer is: nothing at all! Soil becomes rich merely by existing; its virtue comes from the rain, sun, wind, and all the plants and animals that pass across it, each leaving their imprint, living or dying there, the wealth of untold generations.

Perhaps we are the same way. Maybe there is nothing we do, consciously, that increases our virtue; we cannot become virtuous, because we already are. Our virtue, our wealth, is simply ourselves, our accumulation of experiences, in one lifetime or many… The lives that have touched us, the experiences that have shaped us, everything that has made us who we are — this is our wealth.

Perhaps this is the storehouse from which new life arises, the treasure in our hearts that makes the impossible possible, shatters limitations, builds high and digs deep, lives long and sees far.

9 responses to “The Tao of Leadership”

  1. Your analogy is awesome Jeff. This state of just existing, naturally bringing out the highest potential of others in the process (like soil), is incredibly simple but hard to actually carry out.

    I am finding myself in several unexpected leadership roles, and I’ve been doing it precisely the wrong way, even though I fundamentally know that there are other ways. However, some part of me always wants to meddle, showing others my “superior” methods, even though that has never, ever worked. The only result is that I can then blame the incompetence of others for the failed task.

    I know it’s time to turn this situation around, and your article has been a powerful reminder of what I already know how to do – I just need to start applying it. Not in a theoretical situation, but under pressure and facing hard deadlines.


  2. I’m so glad this was helpful, Vitor! And believe me, I know how hard it is. I often have to catch myself in the middle of correcting my children — I have to step back and let them make their own mistakes. But the consequences of meddlesome leadership can be disastrous, regardless of the situation, so it’s definitely worth working hard on. Good luck!!


  3. I could be on the wrong track here, but this made me think of mythical symbols that both embody and point towards higher truths


    open up the deepest dimension of the human soul and reality, which is the ultimate power of being, and radiate the power of being and meaning of that for which they stand.
    Dorrien, Gary J, 2003, ‘The Making of American Liberal Theology’, p.503 (Westminster John Knox Press)

    I thought about this in relation to the idea of good leadership and making your life an example, by becoming a living symbol.

    A leader who embodies certain principles, rather then enforcing them, allows the observer to absorb those principles naturally.

    Just thought I’d through that in to see what you would think.

    Great post 😀


  4. I find myself struggling with leading others at work and my children at home. Sometimes I find that if I step in and instruct, it can transfer my experience and lessons I’ve learned to others faster and easier than if they muddle through it themselves.

    But, on the other hand, I’ve seen where sometimes people need to learn on their own through experience too. Through that experience of failing, they may figure out a better way than what I would have instructed.

    Finding that middle point is what I think leadership is. It relates to your metaphor in finding the balance between setting the boundaries vs. getting out of the way. Too much of either one is a failure of leadership.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


  5. Greetings!

    I think this post is very informative. In a way, I feel a little more refreshed after reading it. A lot of the points you gave were present in my life. Right now, I just want to be like the soil. The soil is simple and yet it possesses such wonderful attributes. I would like to strive to be the same. Hopefully, it will allow me to have a better grasp of my life and be a more effective leader in the process.


  6. Mahud: a living symbol! What a neat way of putting it. I think this has echoes of leaders that are so iconic that they really are unarguably living symbols — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the like. In many ways, they continue to lead movements even though they are, quite literally, gone back to the soil. 😉 Leadership without leading.

    Morninghawk, I hear what you’re saying about knowing when to step in, and when to remain quiet. Ultimately I think one should only offer advice when it’s asked for, or would be welcomed; in this way, it’s still passive leadership. If you offer advice when it’s not wanted, you may help get a job done in the short term, but you’ll also foster unintended consequences that can poison the relationship. This sort of thing gets more important the closer the children are to adolescence, and it’s something I definitely need to work on. 🙂

    Jen Chan, so glad you enjoyed the post! Let me know how it goes!


  7. I really loved this blog post. It made me think about some of the leaders I’ve worked under in the past and I can see how rigid they were in their thinking. One of my clients has a great article about leadership she wrote that fits right into this topic. You can read it at


  8. Thanks for the kind words, Bonnie. The article you point to is a lot more specific than mine, and is far outside my expertise. 🙂 It’s interesting, though, that the author portrays the leader as a gardener, while mine suggests that the leader should be the soil itself.


  9. […] the definition of leadership. I wrote more in depth on leadership-as-example a few years ago here: The Tao of Leadership Druid Journal __________________ For the spiritual searcher who feels called or connected to Nature and the […]


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