Purpose and Integrity for Sustainable Success in Turbulent Times

The Art of Leadership: Effectiveness Without Contending

Sections 67–73

Erik Schön
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
8 min readJan 5, 2021


Photo: Farzane Saremi/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.

67. Compassion, Frugality, Modesty

Lao Tzu

Everyone talks about purpose
with such familiarity.
What folly!

True purpose
is useful because it is unique
or it would be lost and forgotten.

There are three treasures to nurture and sustain it:

From compassion comes courage;
from frugality comes generosity;
from modesty comes leadership.

Courage without compassion;
generosity without frugality;
leadership without modesty;
is fatal.

Compassion brings
success in attack;
safety in defense.

Nature serves and protects
through compassion.

Ames & Hall

A sense of frugality reflects abiding respect for the integrity of things and an unwillingness to compromise them. It is this respect for other things that allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them. And an unwillingness to contend for domination over other things is a reluctance to sacrifice the creative possibilities of either oneself or one’s environing others through recourse to coercion. It is precise because I am non-coercive that other things defer to me in leading the way.

Compassion funds the concrete network of affective relationships; all effective transactions are effective transactions, and require recourse to these invested relations.

Stefan Stenudd

A golden rule is to avoid giving power to people who want it, or loudly claim to be best fit for it. The best leaders we can find are usually those who are reluctant to shoulder the responsibility. They take it seriously. Those we need to convince to take the job are the ones we should get for it. But those who jump at the opportunity should be stopped at the entrance.

Arthur Waley

These are the three rules that formed the practical, political side of Lao Tzu’s teaching:

  1. abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment [compassion],
  2. absolute simplicity of living [frugality],
  3. refusal to assert active authority [modesty].

Peter Merel

Leadership-as-a-Service Patterns

  1. Directly Responsible Individuals (“DRIs”): Committees without individual responsibilities compromise decisions and take agency away from their members. Therefore, attach a Directly Responsible Individual to each item. The DRI carries sole responsibility for execution decisions about that item. Or, using Decide The Decider below, for servant-leading their team to execute these decisions as part of their mission.
  2. Balance of Powers: Per the Agile Manifesto, the best decisions emerge from self-organizing teams. Self-organization only occurs in small teams of peers because giving one individual the authority to overrule the decisions of others stops self-organization. Therefore, give a decision to its DRI if and only if the other team members run out of time to reach unanimity about it. If and only if the other team members are unanimous, their decision overrules the DRI. The possibility of a DRI deciding is usually sufficient to generate consensus, while also inducing each DRI to lead by influence — not authority.
  3. Decide the Decider: someone must decide which DRI to attach to each agenda or work item. And someone must decide the timeframe for making decisions about these items. Therefore, designate a specific DRI to decide (1) which team member should serve as DRI for each item; and (2) how much time the team can have to reach unanimity before the decision about an item falls to its DRI. We can call this decider-of-DRIs a Chair or Speaker. To maintain Balance of Powers, the Chair can never overrule an item’s DRI on a decision unless the rest of the team unanimously agrees, nor can they break unanimity by siding with the DRI on a decision. In other words, they never make decisions — they only decide deciders.

These patterns combine to promote team autonomy and harmony.

68. Effectiveness Without Contending

Lao Tzu

Experienced people avoid anger;
successful generals avoid aggression.

Skilled leaders succeed
by avoiding engaging competition;
and taking a lower place.

This is effectiveness without contending;
this is suitable use of abilities;
this is following climatic patterns.
The path to perfection.

Sun Tzu

Avoid moving, except for advantage;
Avoid deploying, except for success;
Avoid engaging, except in crises.

Avoid developing strategy in anger;
avoid deploying strategy enraged.
if engaging is in line with purpose, move; if not, stop.

Anger can turn to happiness;
rage can turn to joy;
an organisation destroyed is beyond re-recreation.

Therefore, skilled leaders are careful and cautious.
This is how to keep an organisation in harmony and safety.

Ames & Hall

Warfare is always a losing proposition, but sometimes you are left with no other choice.

Stefan Stenudd

The leader, who refrains from personal strife, will find people responding by doing their utmost to comply. They are encouraged by a leader who doesn’t push a personal agenda, but the common interest. So, they take initiatives to bring their own abilities and make use of them.

Danah Zohar

The leader gives up all power and instead assumes a role of service, offering support, resources, vision, and inspiration to those whom he/she leads.

69. Moving Without Formation

Lao Tzu

When engaging
rather than inviting,
rather than advancing,

This is moving without formation;
seizing without swinging;
repelling without opposing;
wielding without weapons.

The greatest disasters are
underestimating competition;
contempt for competition;
what treasures lost.

Therefore, in competition
compassion succeeds.

Jensen Huang

Retreat does not come easily. Yet strategic retreat, sacrifice, and deciding what to give up is at the core, the very core, of success.

Sun Tzu

The skill of skills is
succeeding without engaging competitors
rather than
succeeding in a hundred engagements.

Knowing stakeholders and oneself ensures success;
knowing oneself without knowing stakeholders enables it;
knowing neither stakeholders nor oneself prevents it.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The prize thrown away by the aggressor is compassion. The yielder, the griever, the mourner keeps that prize. The game is loser takes all.

Ames & Hall

Being successful militarily requires awareness.

Just as control produces disorder, aggression leads to enervation, and arrogance to humiliation.

The army that enters the battle with remorse is the one that has the deeper understanding of the relationship, between itself and its enemy, and although it would not be deploying on the battlefield unless all other options had been exhausted, it still treats the relationship with this enemy with abiding respect.

Stefan Stenudd

The warrior who is eager to advance is the one who nurtures the illusion that war brings good things to the winner. There are no winners in war. Those who know this neither invite to it, nor hurry to advance in it.

The hesitant warrior tries as much as he can to win the war without doing battle. If prepared properly, a war can be won before the battle begins.

Repelling without opposing is to arm the country so well in times of peace that war is avoided, or swiftly won. It’s arming to avoid war, not to wage it. The same can be said for wielding without weapons.

70. Unprincipled Knowing

Lao Tzu

These words are easy to understand;
easy to practice.
Yet few understand and act accordingly.

These words and actions
are part of a system.
Only because it requires unprincipled knowing
people misunderstand.

Those who understand and act accordingly
are highly valued.
Skilled leaders wear rough clothes
hiding jade.

Ames & Hall

“Unprincipled knowledge” is knowledge without the assumption that there is an unchanging reality behind appearance, i. e. knowledge without fixed principles, categories and labels. The acceptance of the world on its own terms without recourse to rules of discrimination that separate one sort of thing from another. This type of knowledge gives the ability to mirror the world at each moment in a way that is undetermined by the shape of a world that has passed away, or by anticipations of a world yet to come.

The attainment of “unprincipled knowing” is the habit of embracing experience immediately and on its own terms without allowing preconceptions to arrest one’s exploration and appreciation short of a probing depth of awareness.

71. To Think You Know

Lao Tzu

To know — with unprincipled knowing — is supreme.
To think you know — without unprincipled knowing — is faulty.

The only way to avoid faults is through unprincipled knowing.

Therefore, skilled leaders are faultless,
recognizing a fault as a fault.

Ursula K. Le Guin

What you know without knowing you know it is the right kind of knowledge. Any other kind (conviction, theory, dogmatic belief, opinion) isn’t the right kind, and if you don’t know that, you’ll lose purpose (tao).

Ames & Hall

We invariably have a set of presuppositions that we bring to experience. To think otherwise is naive. But a self-conscious awareness of such prejudices can go a long way toward immunising us against the hardening of the categories and epistemic sclerosis.

Stefan Stenudd

The only proper attitude to have is one of modesty and humility. We must keep in mind that knowledge is uncertain and truth is elusive. Then we know that we don’t know, and thereby escape the illness.

72. Feeling Safe

Lao Tzu

When people feel safe with leaders,
leaders are skilled, and safe.

Avoid invading their privacy;
avoid pressuring them.
Only by avoiding this
they will stay content.

Therefore, skilled leaders
know themselves,
and avoid showing off;
love themselves,
and avoid being precious;
keep one, leave the other.

Ames & Hall

It is only by being people-centred that those entrusted with governing can exercise the authority appropriate to bringing proper order to the world. If people feel mistreated and become estranged from those holding responsibility, the days of the present leadership are numbered, and change is imminent.

73. Brave Caution

Lao Tzu

Brave daring brings failure;
brave caution brings success.
One brings benefit, one brings harm.

Who understands common sense?
Even skilled leaders find it hard.

Common sense is
succeeding without contending;
answering without lecturing;
attracting without summoning;
preparing without controlling.

The net of common sense is vast;
vast, wide-meshed,
still catching everything.

Ames & Hall

Real strength entails flexibility, real wisdom entails uncertainty, and real endurance entails patience. So, too, real courage is most effective when it is tempered by prudence.

Danah Zohar

The way that universe unfolds as it evolves, is always changing, and the only successful way to thrive in this world is to remain spontaneous and rule with a light touch, creatively responding to the flow of unpredictable events rather than reacting to them with forced control.

R.L. Wing

Skilled leaders succeed by accepting, incorporating and supporting change. Their cooperation with the forces in nature makes them a part of those forces. Their decisions become astute because they are based on a dynamic, evolving reality, not on fixed or wishful thinking.

J.L.L. Duyvendak

Nothing escapes what we would call the Laws of Nature.

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, system engineer to leader, executive, strategizer. Writer: #ArtOfChange #ArtOfLeadership #ArtOfStrategy http://yokosopress.se