The Art of Leadership: Grasping the Whole

Sections 20–23

Photo: Benjamin Davies/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 (All Parts; Other reading and viewing formats).

20. Daring to Unlearn

Lao Tzu

Dare to unlearn, and confusion disappears:
What is between “yes” and “yeah”?
What is between “good” and “bad”?
Those whom people fear will fear others.
Such statements confuse — how pointless!

Most people are happy
as if feasting at a banquet
or climbing a sightseeing tower in springtime;
I alone am passive, giving no sign,
like a baby yet to smile;
lost, as if nowhere to go.

Most people have enough and more,
I alone am lacking.
I have the heart and mind of a fool,
confused, confused.

Others are bright and intelligent.
I alone am dull, dull
drifting on the ocean,
blown about endlessly.

Others have purpose,
I alone am foolish and stubborn;
I alone am different from others,
seeking safety.


The study of formal rules of etiquette and correct behaviour has no end.

Ames & Hall

Learning is all about being on the right side of conventional distinction. Yet these distinctions — assenting and rejecting, deeming beautiful and otherwise, fearing and being feared, and so on — are at best porous and perspectival.


Judgements on what is preferable or not in society are based on fear. People foster prejudice about what is acceptable and what is not. Fear lurks inside this prejudice. Man is a social beast, and that urge in us often leads to beastly behavior. This is especially true as soon as fear is somehow involved – fear of the unknown, fear of anything different, fear of not conforming. We foster a lot of fears.

21. Great Effectiveness

Lao Tzu

Great effectiveness
follows purpose.
Purpose —
elusive and evasive.

Elusive and evasive —
yet containing images.
Elusive and evasive —
yet containing forms.

Shadowy and obscure —
yet containing the essence.
The essence is real,
and helps build trust.

From the beginning, purpose was praised
as the origin of everything.

How do I know this origin?
Like this.


Some natural laws we can utilize to our advantage, and some processes in nature we can copy for our own benefit. But we lack certainty as to what really makes everything work. Our sciences are sketch works, where closer inspection shows that many details are still missing. Our lines have not connected all the dots.

22. Grasping the Whole

Lao Tzu

Crippled becomes whole;
crooked becomes straight;
hollow becomes full;
worn becomes new;
little becomes more;
much becomes delusion.

Therefore, skilled leaders grasp the whole to act:
shine by avoiding showing themselves;
stand out by avoiding asserting themselves;
succeed by avoiding praising themselves;
endure by avoiding complacency.

So, by avoiding contending
no one can contend with them.

The ancients said:
“crippled becomes whole”
Are these just empty words?
No, everything returns to the whole.


By grasping the interaction between the theory of return and the scheme of yielding, one should be able to decipher the paradoxical relationship between means and ends.

Taoist strategy seems paradoxical because one still has not completed the paradigm shift from the level of particulars to the level of the whole, because one still sees opposites as opposites, not as an organic, dynamic whole system. Hence the whole or the system is essential for understanding the Taoist methodology and putting it into practice. By embracing the system, skilled leaders can draw on contrary means to attain their goals, providing them with an advantage and additional methods for dealing with complex situations. This marks a real breakthrough in the realm of strategy as it denotes a complete break from the means — ends rational framework that is a the heart of modern war and strategy.

Purpose (tao) itself consists simply in the uninterrupted interplay of yin and yang, for the polarity of the situation rests in them. Unifying the duality is therefore the basic requirement before proceeding to the level of the system. Once we realise this, we can then use this mental tool to understand the entire system and to know the interactions and interconnections within.


Skilled leaders have made their conscious minds accessible to everything, because they have dissolved all the focal points to which ideal forms and plans inevitably lead, and they have freed it from the particular obsessions that, through a lack of flexibility, it is liable to foster. In this way, they have liberated it from both the partiality and the rigidity in which an individual point of view, once it has become exclusive, becomes trapped. In other words, finally to put the matter plainly, they have allowed their conscious minds to take in the entire globality or processes, and they kept it in a state that is as mobile and fluid — even evolving — as the course of reality itself. Skilled leaders are thus in a position to identify with the overall coherence of becoming and can confidently anticipate future changes.

Any strategy comes down to knowing how to implicate an effect, knowing how to tackle a situation upstream in such a way that the effect flows “naturally” from it. A skilled strategist is a person who knows how to cope with a lack at the centre of a situation (a condition that is lacking) in such a way that a compensatory effect, operating in his favour, then must inevitably result. By placing yourself in an extreme position, you produce and maximise the propensity that will carry you to the opposite extreme.


The world is run by yielding principles, so we must do the same in order to succeed with our intentions. We might not always be successful when walking this path, but we are sure to fail miserably if we choose the opposite direction. Neither mankind nor nature will comply.

23. Flowing with Purpose

Lao Tzu

Few words: nature’s way.

Whirlwinds in the morning,
cloudbursts in the evening.
If nature sustains those only shortly,
how much less so for people?

Therefore, flow with purpose to reach it;
flow with effectiveness to achieve it;
avoid flowing and be lost.

Purpose is enhanced by effectiveness
diminished when effectiveness is lost.

Show trust to be trusted.


Sun Tzu and the Taoists see war and the world as a system, and they understand that unintended consequences can be, and very often are, devastating. So even though the Chinese are experts in dealing with second-order effects, they would rather choose to avoid the potentially harmful unintended consequences. And engaging in more forms of action and effort are sources of unintended consequences. Moreover, it is impossible to engage constantly in actions and effort as this will simply generate “turbulence” which will in turn bring further disorder and chaos to the system. In much the same way as gusts of wind and sudden downpours, human actions and efforts are anomalies that disrupt the system but cannot last long. In other words, any continued action and effort to improve the situation in a systemic environment will only be short-lived and is bound to fail. At the same time, it also disrupts the system and creates unintended and undesired consequences.

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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