Daodejing on Leadership: Like Water

Laozi regarded the possession of what he defined as feminine qualities such as openness, receptiveness, and boundless creativity as vital in a leader. In the sixth chapter of the Daodejing, he calls the Way* “the subtle and profound female” and describes it as “continuous and everlasting”.

In the seventh chapter he goes on to say that the reason why Heaven and Earth are eternal and infinite like the feminine is “because they do not live for themselves.” By behaving in the same way – acting modestly, caring for others, and being selfless – the leader will “achieve their goals”.

Water is one of Laozi’s favorite metaphors. In the eighth chapter, he compares it to “the highest form of goodness” because it “excels in benefiting all things without competing with them” and “settles in places that people disdain”.

Following water’s example, the leader should take on jobs that nobody else will touch, reflect as deeply as possible, be “gentle and kind” to others, “keep their promises”, “maintain stability and order”, be “effective and efficient”, and if that weren’t enough choose the right timing when taking action. By working with other people rather than competing against them, the leader gains their trust and support rather than their resistance and reproach.

In the ninth chapter, Laozi cautions against the dangers of excess – warning that “if you temper the edge of a blade to its sharpest, it will not last for long.” With typical bluntness (no need to excuse the pun), he declares that “riches and honors lead to arrogance” and “bring misfortune upon you”. Try telling that to the one per cent!

To hammer home his message, Laozi gives a checklist of deep and searching questions for the leader to answer in the tenth chapter:
• Can you nurture your spirit and embrace oneness without departing from them?
• Can you concentrate your vital energy and reach a state of suppleness like a new-born baby?
• Can you purify your mind and reflect so deeply that it is untainted?
• Can you love your country and govern your people with effortless action?
• Can you play the role of the feminine in opening and closing the doors of Heaven?
• Can you understand everything instinctively without using your intellect?

Food for thought over the weekend!

*In Chapter 6, the Way is named as the “spirit of the valley”.

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