The Art of Leadership: Effectiveness

Sections 38–43

Photo: Austin Distel/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 leaders in ancient China. “Purpose is a surer path to productivity than pressure. Pressure keeps knocking you off the path. Purpose keeps bringing you back onto the path” Kent Beck ”Invite over inflict.” Jonathan Smart (All Parts; Other reading and viewing formats).

38. Effectiveness

Lao Tzu

Those with integrity collaborate
and so reach the highest effectiveness.
Those without integrity compete with peers
and so are without effectiveness.

The most effective avoid pressure and control
and get everything done.
The least effective use pressure and control
and things are left undone.

The most compassionate act
without pressure and control.
The most righteous act
without pressure and control.
The most obedient act with pressure and control
and if nothing happens
roll up their sleeves and drag others along.

lose purpose,
and integrity follows;
lose integrity
and compassion follows;
lose compassion
and righteousness follows;
lose righteousness
and obedience follows.

Obedience dilutes loyalty and sincerity:
confusion begins.
Opinion tinsels purpose:
ignorance begins.

And so skilled leaders abide
in substance, avoid dilution;
in reality, avoid tinsel;
Accept one, reject the other.


As soon as people are forced to compete, they have to look after their own interests and so self interest comes to dominate life. All the team building in the world cannot change this dynamic.

Ames & Hall

Preassigned responses are forced and, because coercion only serves to diminish the creative possibilities of a situation, they are dehumanizing. Even in the cultivation of one’s own character, efforts to excel according to stipulated behaviours only compromise one’s natural moral proclivities, and will not do the job.

Technical morality, imposed from without, is no more than a record of steady moral deterioration.


“Opinion” (or “foreknowledge”) means to have one’s mind made up before one enters a new situation about what is “right” and “wrong” and “proper” and “acceptable” and so on.

Jonathan Smart

Invite over Inflict. Invite participation, with intrinsic motivation. The words ”resist” or ”convince” should not enter the vocabulary. To quote Peter Senge, ”the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back”.

Kent Beck

Purpose is a surer path to productivity than pressure. Pressure keeps knocking you off the path. Purpose keeps bringing you back onto the path.

39. Wholeness

Lao Tzu

Of old, these realised wholeness:
climate seen as a whole
became clear;
landscape seen as a whole
became stable;
river valleys seen as a whole
became full;
things becoming whole
became useful;
leaders seeing the whole
became authorities.

Without clarity,
climate would perish;
without stability,
landscape would crack;
without fullness,
river valleys would run dry;
without usefulness
things would disappear;
without authority,
leaders would fail.

noble has humble as its root,
high has low as its foundation.
Leaders call themselves
This is using humility as a root.

A carriage is more than its parts:
clattering like stone over shining like jade.

Ames & Hall

While it is easier to see things as a manifold of separate events, it is more difficult not only to understand the “wholeness” and “continuity” of the process but to further act upon this understanding in our transactions with the world.

What we call common sense is simply coordinating our own behaviour with all that is coherent and persistent within the life experience.


This chapter focuses on the necessity for the parts to be in accordance with purpose (tao), or they will cease to function and there will be disorder. That goes for all the parts. They are equally needed in the grand scheme of things. So, there is no point in any one of them being exalted above the others. It’s a team work, one might say, a great harmony where every piece fits, and nothing could be removed without damage to the whole. That’s reason for modesty. Humility is also the trait of Tao. Therefore, it would be hard to stay united without equal humility.

40. Returning

Lao Tzu

Returning is how purpose moves.
Yielding is how purpose works.

Everything originates from something,
some things originate from nothing.


“Return” corresponds to the movement of Tao, according to which everything reverses its course as soon as it has reached its extreme, as exhibited in the working of Yin — Yang. However, even when the internal logic of Tao has been understood it will not be transformed into effect automatically. It still requires a corresponding scheme to bring about the effect. And that scheme is “yielding” or “being weak”. That is why it is called the function of purpose (tao)— integrity (te) [“te” is a virtue not in the moral sense but in terms of efficacy/effectiveness, i.e. “to obtain”/”actualise”, or, sometimes integrity]. Therefore, just as purpose (tao) is the fundamental principle and effectiveness/integrity (te) its practical application, “return” represents the fundamental principle while “yielding” denotes its practical application that affects the manifestation of “return”.


Most of what takes place in nature is cyclic. Day and night take turns, the moon’s phases are just as regular, as are the shifts of seasons through the year. Plants grow and then they wither. Animals have their lifespan, but also their offspring. That’s the rhythm of mankind, too. Everywhere there is procreation, maybe including the universe as a whole. What to make of it, but a cyclic principle ruling existence?

41. Square Without Corners

Lao Tzu

Thoughtful people hearing of purpose
try to practice it.
Ordinary people hearing of purpose
sometimes get it.
Thoughtless people hearing of purpose
laugh at it.
Without laughter
purpose is beyond reach.

The bright road seems dark;
the road forward seems to retreat;
the level road seems rough.

Great effectiveness seems hollow;
great purity seems sullied;
pervasive effectiveness seems deficient;
established effectiveness seems furtive;
simple truths seem to change.

The greatest square is without corners;
the greatest vessel is finished late;
the greatest sound is scarcely voiced;
the greatest image is without form.

Purpose is without labels.
Purpose begins and ends with effectiveness.

Ames & Hall

The function of purpose (tao) as the site and source of creativity is discovered only in and through things. Further, as the forum of creativity, purpose (tao) must remain provisional and incomplete. Otherwise true novelty — the spontaneous, uncaused, and unexplained emergence of the new and unique — would not be possible.


True effectiveness seems deficient. If it is to make an impact, true effectiveness seems the reverse of a completed effect; it never quite achieves its result, which is precisely why it continues to result. The point is not that effectiveness is really lacking, but it is legitimate that it should seem to be so, so that, by having to continue to operate, it continues to follow an urge to come about and yet never allows itself to become completely actualised.

As we have learned from modern painting, setting a high value on a preliminary sketch makes it possible for what appears to be lacking in it to allow the work to continue to evolve and produce an effect.


We look at the world with prejudice, because we don’t see what is, but what we want and expect.

Its progress seems retreating, because it makes little noise and shuns the spectacular. Its course seems curved and twisted, because it accomplishes its goals indirectly and discreetly.

42. Shady and Sunny

Lao Tzu

Purpose gives rise to continuity;
continuity gives rise to difference;
difference gives rise to plurality;
plurality gives rise to everything.

Everything has a shady side
and a sunny side:
shady and sunny,
energy blending into harmony.

People hate to be poor, lonely, and unable,
yet leaders use these labels for themselves.

Sometimes, less is more;
sometimes, more is less.

What others teach, I also teach:
pressure and control destroy themselves.
That is the basis.

Sun Tzu

When engaging:
first, do the expected, then surprise to succeed.

Skilled combinations of surprise and the expected is:
as infinite as heaven and earth;
as inexhaustible as rivers and seas;
ending only to begin again like the sun and the moon;
dying only to live again like the four seasons.

Momentum in engaging with stakeholders arises only from the expected and the surprising, yet combining them form more ways than can ever be known.
Each brings on the other, like an infinite cycle.

Who can exhaust all possibilities?


While Yin and Yang help us look at things from the opposite viewpoint and hence, get a more complete picture of the situation, we should not forget the dynamic nature of Yin and Yang — they are at once interconnected, interpenetrating and interdependent.

All Correlative Pairs like Yin and Yang are in a constant process of shifting from one end to the other. Such an organic paradigm is essential for acquiring fundamental insights and enhancing our adaptability. Since the Yin and Yang concept was originally derived from observations of nature (Yin and Yang originally represented the shady and sunny sides of a mountain), it offers a universal law of describing the interactions and interrelations of natural physical forces. And because of its emphasis on wholeness and its dynamic nature, the Yin and Yang concept is also able to deal with social and human systems, and, in the case of The Art of War with war as a system.

Yin and Yang helps to cut through the sense of paradox that may be caused by seemingly contradictory attitudes, and it can even resolve contradiction and paradox.

It can be a mistake to reject conclusions because thy seem formally contradictory; such conclusions are merely reflections of things, and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.


Instead of excluding each other, other Correlative Pairs like Yin and Yang mutually condition each other, and this constitutes the logic from which skilled leaders derive their strategy. For, instead of seeing no farther than the opposed aspects of things, as common sense pictures them, and keeping them isolated, skilled leaders are able to discern their interdependence and to profit from it. This is what they exploit instead of wearing themselves out in efforts of their own.

Ames & Hall

Yin and Yang is a vocabulary of contrast, suggesting possible width of experience and the degree of diversity. Particular events in the world emerge as unique combinations of this diversity. In this creative process, it is a balancing and harmonising of extremes that are most productive. Hence, sometimes less is indeed more.


If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites.

43. Water and Stone

Lao Tzu

The softest thing in the world
rushes over the hardest.

Only the least substantial
can penetrate the seamless.

This teaches the benefits of avoiding pressure and control.

Teaching without words,
benefits without pressure and control

Few in this world can realize these.

Sun Tzu

Torrential waters rumble rocks thanks to momentum.

Bruce Lee

The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to [無為 (wúwéi); acting without coercion; spontaneity, spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses; letting things follow their own natural course; effortless action; acting natural] is water. Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day.

Ames & Hall

The way to optimise the creative possibilities of all the elements in any particular situation is to allow them to collaborate in doing what they do non-coercively.

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 and viewing formats




No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

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Erik Schön

Erik Schön

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

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