10 leadership lessons from Lao-Tzu

Curt Mercadante
5 min readJan 20


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao-Tzu

Photo: Lao-Tzu from Photos.com on Canva.

Legend has it that Lao-Tzu was the a court archivist in the 6th Century BCE during the Zhou Dynasty in China. He was disgusted with the politics of the day and so decided to retreat to the wilderness to live is a hermit and sage.

On his way out of the city, the guard asked Lao-Tzu to record his teachings before he left, and so Lao-Tzu agreed, doing so in what came to be the immortal Tao Te Ching.

The Tao is a collection of 81 poems or verses that contain teachings on Taoism and philosophy. The title of the book can be translated as “The Book of the Way and its Power” or “The Classic of the Way and its Virtue.” It’s considered to be one of the most important texts in Chinese philosophy and it has had a profound influence on global culture and thought.

The text of the “Tao Te Ching” is written in a poetic and mystical style and it contains teachings on the nature of the universe and the way in which human beings should live in harmony with it. The book emphasizes the importance of living a simple and natural life and it teaches that the key to understanding the universe is to understand the Tao, which is the underlying principle of all things. The book also contains teachings on the nature of leadership and governance, emphasizing the importance of humility and simplicity in leadership.

In addition to providing a wealth of wisdom on how one can live a life of flow in harmony with nature, Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching also offers a wealth of teachings on leadership, including:

  1. Lead by example: One of the most important principles of leadership is that leaders must lead by example. Lao-Tzu emphasizes this point by stating that “the leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him.” In other words, a true leader is one who sets the example for others to follow, rather than relying on their position of power to command obedience.
  2. Embrace humility: Another important principle of leadership is humility. Lao-Tzu states that “the greatest leader is one whose actions are hardly noticed.” This is because a humble leader is more likely to listen to the opinions and ideas of others, rather than imposing their own will. Furthermore, a humble leader is more likely to admit when they are wrong and take responsibility for their mistakes, which earns them the respect and trust of their followers.
  3. Be flexible: Lao-Tzu teaches that “water is the softest thing, yet it can wear away a rock.” In other words, leaders must be flexible and adaptable in order to be effective. This means being open to new ideas, changing course when necessary, and being able to navigate through difficult situations.
  4. Embrace simplicity: Lao-Tzu states that “the more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.” This means that leaders should strive to simplify things as much as possible, rather than creating unnecessary rules and regulations. A simple and straightforward approach is more likely to be understood and followed by others.
  5. Cultivate relationships: Lao-Tzu stresses the importance of relationships in leadership, stating that “the best leaders are those most interested in surrounding themselves with what is best and brightest.” This means that leaders should strive to build strong relationships with their followers, as well as with other leaders and influencers in their field.
  6. Be aware of your own limitations: Lao-Tzu teaches that “he who knows he has enough is rich.” This means that leaders should be aware of their own limitations and strive to stay within them. This will help them to avoid overreaching and making mistakes, and it will also help them to be more effective in the long run.
  7. Foster creativity: Lao-Tzu states that “the best leader is one who is able to create new things.” This means that leaders should strive to foster creativity and innovation among their followers. This can be done by encouraging experimentation and taking risks, as well as by providing opportunities for learning and development.
  8. Be patient: Lao-Tzu teaches that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This means that leaders should be patient and persistent in their efforts, as great accomplishments often take time to achieve.
  9. Be self-disciplined: Lao-Tzu states that “the best leader is one who is able to control himself.” This means that leaders should strive to be self-disciplined and self-controlled. This will help them to stay focused and avoid distractions, and it will also help them to be more effective in the long run.
  10. Live in harmony with nature: Lao-Tzu teaches that “the best leader is one who lives in harmony with nature.” This means that leaders should strive to understand and work with the natural laws and principles that govern the world around them. This can be done by being mindful of the impact that their actions have on the environment and by taking a holistic approach to leadership, considering the well-being of not just their followers but also the world at large.

In conclusion, Lao-Tzu’s teachings on leadership offer a wealth of wisdom and insights that are still relevant today. From leading by example, embracing humility and flexibility, to fostering creativity and self-discipline, these principles can help leaders to be more effective and successful in their roles. By following the teachings of Lao-Tzu, leaders can develop the qualities and skills needed to inspire, motivate and guide their followers towards a common goal.

Curt Mercadante helps fellow humans live their lives of joy, fulfillment, and freedom. He is a CEO, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and author of Five Pillars of the Freedom Lifestyle. Click here to get access to his FREE Freedom Lifestyle Audio Course.



Curt Mercadante

CEO, Advantage Informatics / Author / Speaker / C-Level Flow Coach