Purpose and Integrity for Sustainable Success in Turbulent Times

The Art of Leadership: Balancing

Sections 74–81

Erik Schön
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
9 min readJan 6, 2021


Photo: Karina Tess/Unsplash

What is leadership? Why is this important? How do you lead successfully? The Art of Leadership provides timeless answers to these eternal questions. It is a modern reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching — a guide for sustainable success in turbulent times. All parts. Other reading formats.

74. Fearing Death

Lao Tzu

If people are unafraid of death,
how can you threaten them with it?
If people with normal fear of death
are about to do something vicious,
and I could seize and execute them,
who would dare?

There is always an official executioner.
Trying to take the executioner’s place
is like trying to replace a master carpenter;
few avoid slicing their hands.

Ursula K. Le Guin

To Lao Tzu, not to fear dying and not to fear killing are equally unnatural and antisocial. Who are we to forestall the judgement of heaven or nature, to usurp the role of “the executioner”?

Ames & Hall

Although Lao Tzu would embrace the precept that coercion is always a losing proposition, it leaves open the possibility that under certain and decidedly rare circumstances, sanctioned violence in the shape of capital punishment and even military intervention might be the lesser of two evils.

Stefan Stenudd

Society should be protective of its people, like a mother, and not brutal like a vindictive warrior.

75. Respecting Life

Lao Tzu

People are hungry.
When leaders tax too much
people are hungry.

People are rebellious.
When leaders pressure and control
people are rebellious.

People ignore death.
When leaders exact too much from life
people ignore death.

Only those who avoid striving for life
truly respect it.

Chen Guying

When conditions reach an extreme of exploitation and oppression, the folk will naturally rise up in revolt, without any regard to the consequence.

76. Real Strength

Lao Tzu

People are born soft and supple;
they die hard and rigid.
Plants are born soft and fragile;
they die dry and brittle.

So, the hard and rigid
go with death;
the soft and supple
go with life.

rigid weapons lose;
rigid trees break;
the hard and rigid fail;
the soft and supple succeed.

Ursula K. Le Guin

In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to the bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.

Ames & Hall

What is living is soft and supple, and thus flexible; what is dead is hard and rigid, and thus easily broken. It is the weak that is really strong, and it is the strong that is really weak. Thus, contrary to our conventional inclinations, we should honour and defer to the weak and look down upon the strong.

Derek M.C. Yuen

Lao Tzu draws almost completely on the self-defeat of the enemy, following that the natural propensity has reached its extreme and backfires upon himself.

Yielding is essential because it prevents one from reaching maturity and thus the extreme prematurely, and it also greatly enhance one’s chance to “out-flex” one’s opponent.

Stefan Stenudd

The biggest company in the world will soon go bankrupt if it doesn’t adapt to changes in its line of business. The greatest nation will perish if it refuses to recognize changes inside or outside its borders. A leader who can’t compromise will soon lose his power. An expert who rejects new discoveries descends into ignorance. A person who ceases to be curious grows tired and loses the lust for life.

We live as long as we adapt to life, which always changes. We start dying at the moment we begin to oppose that fundamental fact of life. There’s the essence of longevity.

77. Balance

Lao Tzu

Nature is like a stretched bow
pulling down the top
pulling up the bottom.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low.

In nature
excess is reduced,
lack is increased.

People often
take from people wanting
give to people who have.

Who has enough to fill up everybody?
Only those following purpose.

Therefore, skilled leaders
act without expectations;
accomplish without taking credit;
avoid showing their value.

Ames & Hall

The way of the world in which we live is one of sustained equilibrium. Excess and insufficiency in our various ecological environments certainly occur, but in the course of time they are righted through a process of redistribution, and balanced is restored. While we human beings would do well to imitate this pattern, we instead create a vicious circle in which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

Derek M.C. Yuen

The ultimate goal of strategy is to restore the system to a relatively stable condition so that the fruits of victory can be enjoyed.

78. The Softest Succeeds

Lao Tzu

Water is the softest and weakest in the world.
Still, only water conquers the hard and strong:
soft overcomes hard;
weak overcomes strong.
Everyone knows this
still struggle to use it.

Therefore, skilled leaders say:
only those who accept humiliation can lead an organization;
only those who accept misfortunes can lead the world.

Appropriate words seem contradictory.

Sun Tzu

The organisation is like water.

Water avoids the high and rushes to the low;
the organisation avoids strength and rushes to weakness.

Water adapts to the ground when flowing;
the organisation adapts to stakeholders to succeed.

Water constantly changes form;
the organisation constantly changes setup.

Succeeding by adapting and changing in accord with stakeholders
is the skill of skills.

The ultimate setup is to be formless:
the most prying intelligence operation are unable to observe it;
the most skilful competitors are unable to assess it.
Exploit competition’s setup for success; keep everyone unaware.
Everyone observes the success, yet are unaware of how it was created.

And so, a strategy for success is unrepeatable;
it is setup in response to endlessly changing circumstances.

Derek M.C. Yuen

Water metaphors serve as a theoretical basis for explaining how the weak can defeat the strong.

Water’s accumulation of momentum continues to be valued; it is this which enables something as formless and weak as water to overcome hard and strong objects.

Formlessness is applied to the most important notion of Taoism — purpose (tao); it is re-manifested in different ways in numerous descriptions of purpose (tao).

The idea that purpose cannot be understood, while it simultaneously retains its image, substance, and essence, can be explained by the fact that the Taoists hold a dynamic worldview — reality is constantly evolving. This uninterrupted flow of variance, which is vividly illustrated by the course of flowing water, is regarded as the very course of reality. The only thing that can be said with any degree of certainty about purpose is that it is unchanging simply because it is ever-changing.

The most important lesson underlying the Taoist worldview regarding the formlessness of purpose and the constant evolution of reality is the idea that reality possesses no form — it is humans who impose various forms upon it, and these forms are merely mental constructs. While these simplified forms and models may be useful when first trying to make sense of the world, they will eventually become major obstacles for understanding reality as a flow of variance and, more importantly, as one without any distortion.

François Jullien

Even though skilled leaders know that there are no rules or norms to codify the future, since the flow of reality is constantly innovating, they feel no anxiety (in contrast to the latest Western mode of ideology — which is concerned with “uncertainty”, “turbulence, “ and “chaos”) as they have already been equipped with the “toolkit” and worldview of Taoism and strategy a la Sun Tzu that enables them to orient themselves under such circumstances.

Stefan Stenudd

Dripping water hollows out the stone, not through force but through persistence. Water embraces instead of confronts, it caresses instead of beats, but it still subdues, eventually.

79. Harmonising Hatred

Lao Tzu

Harmonise hatred
and some hatred will remain.
How can this be successful?

Skilled leaders
honour the contract
without demands.

People with integrity
fulfil their obligations;
insist on their claims.

Nature is impartial
siding with trustworthy people.

Ursula K. Le Guin

This is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treatises.

Ames & Hall

By the time relationships have disintegrated into a situation of intense enmity, it is almost impossible to restore them. Much better to have managed the relationship through deference and accommodation in the first place.

François Jullien

On many occasions, focusing too much on winning battles and wars brings unintended and undesirable consequences that are beyond our strategic capacity to repair.

Derek M.C. Yuen

Unforeseen consequences, such as hatred, frequently take a long time to reverse, and they will eventually hamper progress. Hence the repeated use of action and intervention in a long-term endeavour will in turn create more obstacles of this kind, and one of the foremost tasks of a strategist is to limit any action/interference so as to prevent negative unintended consequences from arising and to eliminate any chance that they will lead to a reversal of the tide.

Stefan Stenudd

A contract of any kind should have two winners.

80. Freedom

Lao Tzu

Small country, few people —
hundreds of weapons,
waiting to be used.

People ponder death
and avoid travelling far.
They have carriages and boats
and stay where they are.
They have armour and spears
and put them away.

They knot cords for counting;
sweet their food;
beautiful their clothes;
peaceful their homes;
delightful their customs;

Neighbouring countries so close
you hear their chickens and dogs.
Still, people grow old and die
happy without conflicts.

Ames & Hall

It is better to remain on the land, while at the same time prudently encouraging that preparations be made in case someone else is less deliberate and decides to bring the battle to you.

81. Learning Beyond Principles

Lao Tzu

Sincere words are ugly;
beautiful words are insincere.

Skilled people avoid contending;
contentious people are unskilled.

Wise people learn beyond principles;
learning using only principles is unwise.

Skilled leaders avoid hoarding;
have enough by doing for others;
have even more by giving to others.

Nature benefits without harming;
skilled leaders serve without interfering.

Ames & Hall

Given the inseparability of opposites, frugality suggests a focused respect for the integrity of other things, and allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them. Likewise, modesty in one’s language, learning, and abilities does not in any way diminish one’s character, and yet opens up a space that facilitates harmonious and mutually productive relationships. Given the inseparability of opposites, acting on behalf of others is gaining oneself, and giving to others is getting oneself.

Stefan Stenudd

There is much good to say about learning, but it doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom. Knowing the facts is not the same as understanding what they represent or prove. Good learning is gathered in order to have substantial material for reaching conclusions. But learning without concluding is as meaningless as amassing riches that one cannot ever spend in a lifetime. It’s excessive baggage. Our time is one of rapidly growing knowledge. The total of human knowledge is said to be doubled every few years. But most of this knowledge is in need of processing. It has yet to be used for conclusions. We number things and name them, but that’s not to understand them. We’re just expanding our catalogs.

When we are considering what path to follow and how to act, we can simply choose what’s the most beneficial and the least harmful.

The Art of Leadership: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of all parts
Introduction: How to make a difference

Glossary: Explanation of key terms
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more
Other reading formats: Hardcover, paperback and PDF



Erik Schön
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

From hacker, software researcher and system engineer to leader, executive and strategizer. Writer: #ArtOfLeadership #ArtOfStrategy http://yokosopress.se