Daodejing Chapter 3: leadership through effortless action

Do not single out the gifted for praise,
To ensure that the people never contend;
Do not prize rare goods,
To ensure that the people never steal;
Do not display objects of desire,
To ensure that the people’s hearts will never be restless.
That’s why the sage rules his people by:
Emptying their minds;
But filling their stomachs;
Weakening their ambitions;
But strengthening their sinews.
Always keeping the people free from knowledge and desires,
To ensure that those with knowledge will never dare act.
By acting with effortless action,
There is nothing that he cannot govern.

For all the spiritual and mystical interpretations that have been attached to the Daodejing, the text is also a leadership and governance manual that was written for the ruling elite of the time. Its aim was to promote the development of a peaceful and stable society in which the people and their leader lived in harmony.

To achieve this goal, the wise leader acts like a conductor of an orchestra rather than a diva. He remains in the background, quietly managing affairs “with effortless action” to ensure that the people are kept well-fed and contented. He prevents unnecessary conflicts and rivalries by refusing to single out individuals for praise, and he stops people falling prey to materialistic temptations by reining in ostentatious consumption.

By promoting the collective good rather than his own personal glory, the wise leader sets the right example for the people to follow.

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