Daodejing on Leadership: Bowls and Bellows

If I was asked to choose one word to describe what the Daodejing is about, I would have no hesitation at all in saying “leadership”. Despite the ambiguous, some might say mystical, language of the first chapter, Laozi is already beginning to lay out the principles and processes that a leader should follow in order to foster a stable and harmonious society and opening “the gateway to its (the Way’s) whole essence”.

He follows up in the second chapter by unveiling his core principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi), through which he enjoins the leader to let actions and events unfold rather than attempt to force them to happen. According to his theory of the unity of opposites, the more you push people the more they will resist you.

In the third chapter, Laozi builds on this theme by exhorting the leader to create a culture of cooperation built around a common goal. Ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption that could lead to envy and competitiveness among others are actively discouraged; so too is picking favorites and glorifying their achievements. In short, the leader has to set the right example. Like it or not, he or she is always under the microscope and others will take their cues from his or her behavior.

In the fourth chapter Laozi likens the Way to an empty bowl, the usefulness of which “can never be never be exhausted.” He goes on to say that “invisible and formless, it always seems to be present” – just like the unwritten rules and conventions that govern any organization. By building a healthy culture based on the right principles and values, the leader similarly creates an “empty bowl” with unlimited potential.

The author moves from bowls to bellows in the fifth chapter, comparing “the space between Heaven and Earth” to the humble but magical implement: “when empty, it’s still inexhaustible; the more it’s squeezed, the more air it emits.” He then goes on to say that “too many words will only lead to failure; better to stick silently to the Way.”

I can’t help wondering whether Laozi had the phrase “hot air” in mind when reaching this conclusion.  I’d like to think he had a sense of humor.

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