Although the Daodejing has a mystical feel to it, thanks in large part to the ambiguity of some of the terms it uses and the richness of its language, the book is at heart a leadership manual that was written to warn the ruling class of the time against their excessive greed, depravity, and cruelty.
Laozi was appalled by the suffering that the rulers of his time inflicted on their people as a result of their lust for ever greater wealth and power, and in chapter 72 cautions them that their oppressive behavior will ultimately lead to their downfall:
The people starve,
Because their rulers levy too much grain tax.
That is why they starve.
The people are difficult to govern,
Because their rulers interfere too much.
That is why they are difficult to govern.
The people make light of death,
Because their rulers lead lives of excess.
That is why they make light of death.
Only those who do not lead lives of excess,
Are best at understanding the true value of life.
Laozi believed that instead of interfering in the lives of their people, the leader should only intervene in their affairs when it is absolutely necessary. In chapter 17, he places those who stay in the background at the top of his list of four different types of leaders while putting those who are feared and hated at the bottom:
The best leaders are ones who are barely known by their people;
Then come ones who are loved and praised;
Then come ones who are feared;
Then come ones who are hated.
To Laozi, therefore, the role of the leader is to empower people rather to control them. By adhering to this principle, the leader will ensure that the people are happier and more productive. As he concludes in chapter 17:
When their tasks are accomplished and everything is taken care of,
The people will say, “We did it ourselves.”