The Art of Leadership: Knowing Yourself

Sections 31–37

Photo: Karsten Winegeart/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).

In memory of Erkki Schön, who persevered and found contentment.

31. A Great Victory is a Funeral

Lao Tzu

Weapons are terrible things,
they are hated.
Therefore, avoid them.

At home, honour the left.
In war, honour the right.

Weapons are terrible things,
only to be used as a last resort,
coolly without enthusiasm.

Even in success
weapons are ugly.
To think them beautiful
is to enjoy killing people.
Those who enjoy killing people
fail in this world.

When celebrating, honour the left.
When mourning, honour the right.
The lieutenant on the left,
the general on the right,
as in funerals.

When many people are killed,
we feel sorrow and grief.

A great victory
is a funeral.

Sun Tzu

War is vitally important:
a place for creation or destruction;
a path to success or failure;
a matter to be carefully considered.

Henrikson & Tsu-Yü

The left symbolises the fortunate, the creative; the right symbolises the sinister, the destructive.

Ames & Hall

Warfare ought not to be glorified. It is always a losing proposition, and there are no victors. Although on occasion unavoidable, it is nothing better than methodical state-sanctioned killing. Even in the event of victory, triumph on the killing fields should never be confused with the proper seasons of celebration, but instead should be treated as what it is: a state funeral properly marked by grief and mourning.

32. Knowing When to Stop

Lao Tzu

Purpose endures without labels.
Though uncarved wood is simple and slight,
no one in the world can master it.

If skilled leaders could possess it,
people would follow of their own accord.
The world would harmonise
and drop sweet dew
and people would distribute it equally.

Begin to make order, and labels arise.
Labels lead to more labels —
know when to stop.

Know when to stop,
to avoid danger.

Purpose is to the world
as creeks and streams are to rivers and seas.

Ames & Hall

In order to function effectively in managing our environment, we need distinctions. These distinctions in themselves are functional and enabling, but once established, can take on a life of their own.

Rational structure become institutionalised and, given enough time, petrified.

What began as a convenience takes over, constraining the very experience it was created to facilitate, and in doing so, robs life of its creative vigour.


Instead of struggling to understand what might lie far beyond our capacity, let’s be perceptive to the patterns and follow the directions pointed out by how nature behaves.

33. Knowing Yourself

Lao Tzu

Knowing others is wisdom;
knowing yourself is enlightenment.

Conquering others is power;
conquering yourself is resilience.

Knowing contentment is to have wealth.
Persevering is to have purpose.
Holding your ground is to endure.
Dying and being remembered is to be perennial.

Sun Tzu

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

Jack Ma

If we want to change the world, we change ourselves.


If we learn to understand ourselves and improve by overcoming our personal limitations, then we have come a long way towards Lao Tzu’s version of longevity.

34. Flow

Lao Tzu

Purpose flows
to the left; to the right.
Everyone depends on it
and avoids departing from it.

With all things accomplished
and the work complete
it clothes and nourishes everyone
avoiding pressure and control.

With respectful intent, it may be called slight.
Everyone returns to it
since it avoids pressure and control.

It may be called great.

Therefore, by avoiding making themselves great,
skilled leaders can do great things.

Ames & Hall

The effective “governing” of skilled leaders is analogous to the flourishing of an ecological habitat. The community is self-defining, with its ethos emerging out of the collaboration of its constituents. Skilled leaders are simply virtuoso coordinators, getting the most out organisations without the imposition of any personal agenda.

Greatness lies not in the skilled leaders themselves, but in their catalytic capacity to maximise the creative possibilities of the people. Less is more.


When we learn the natural way, we find solutions to problems no matter how big they are, and our actions meet no resistance. We still have the freedom to counter nature, and often we succeed. The question is what it costs us. And we continue paying as long as we want to keep it up.

35. A Great Vision

Lao Tzu

Seize a great vision
and the world comes to you,
safe from harm
in peace and prosperity.

Music and sweets
make passing guests pause.
Purpose put into words
might be flavourless and bland.

Look —
without seeing it.
Listen —
without hearing it.
Use —
and it is inexhaustible

Ames & Hall

Seizing the great vision is having an aspiration, and having the strength of character and imagination to forge a way that leads the human community forward to live in their most productive manner. Those who have the vision will win the people, and in pursuing this vision, will secure their well-being.

36. Subtle Illumination

Lao Tzu

To collect, first deliberately scatter;
to weaken, first deliberately strengthen;
to abolish, first deliberately establish;
to conclude, first deliberately initiate.

This is called subtle illumination.

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.
Leave strong fish in the depths.
Hide sharp weapons.


Shaping inspired by Sun Tzu constitutes the foundations upon which the weak will be able to defeat the strong.

Ames & Hall

The mutual entailment of opposites can serve us as a caution against becoming preoccupied with one side of a situation. Such comprehensive awareness of the ineluctable transformation of events can serve as a general precept of anticipating the eventual outcome and consequence of any particular situation.

Any condition on reaching its extreme will subsequently give way to its opposite.


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


The cherished and enriched should avoid displaying this, or they might invite a forced change to the opposite. If they are hard and strong, they should for the same reason try to present themselves as soft and weak. Nobody is mighty enough to afford provoking those who surround him.

37. Transformed

Lao Tzu

Purpose endures without labels,
still everything gets done.
When skilled leaders respect this,
people transform themselves of their own accord.

Transformed, if they intend something else,
harmonise using simplicity without labels.
Harmonise with respectful intent
thereby keeping the balance
and the world again settles of its own accord.

Ames & Hall

If you have something’s name, you not only know it, but you can contain it and hold it subject to your will. To invoke a name brings power and mastery with it.

To have the vocabulary of a particular area of experience, then, is to assume charge over it and to control it. But fixed principles, closed systems, the pretence of absolutes and initial origins are intellectually and practically suffocating. Dogma, artificiality, and finality close off the openness and fresh air of new directions in thought and action.

The flow of experience is “nameless” and self-ordering.


By forgetting names and distinctions people free themselves from the socially induced, unnatural desires that cause strife and unhappiness in society (e.g. status, rare objects, fame, authority).

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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