The Art of Leadership: Living with Change

Sections 56–61

Photo: Chris Lawton/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).

56. Beyond Love and Hate

Lao Tzu

Those who know
avoid commanding.
Those who command
are unaware.

Skilled leaders know how to:
listen to understand;
see the connections;
unravel the tangles;
harmonise perspectives;
go with the flow.

Therefore, skilled leaders are beyond:
love and hate;
gain and loss;
praise and blame;
and so, are valued by everyone.

57. Conditions for Self-Organization

Lao Tzu

Use the expected to govern;
use surprise in conflicts;
avoid pressure to succeed.

How do I know?
Like this:
more restrictions mean more poverty;
more weapons mean more riots;
more cunning means more surprises;
more laws mean more crimes.

Therefore, when leaders:
avoid pressure, people transform themselves;
cherish balance, people self-organise;
avoid interfering, people prosper of themselves;
pursue respectful intent, people return to simplicity.

Sun Tzu

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

Skilled combinations of surprise and the expected are:
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.


Lao Tzu openly adopted Sun Tzu’s dual-concept of expected and surprise while reapplying it in a new way; only righteous and non-shaping means “the expected” should be used when governing the state; war is the realm of shaping, i.e. “the surprising”. This is because “more cunning [various forms of shaping] means more surprises”.

The essence of Taoist statecraft and grand strategy resides in the following line: “avoid pressure to succeed”; refraining from the action (knowing not to act) is the best way to achieve the desired end. However, far from advocating disengagement from human affairs and the world, the non-action of Tao Te Ching teaches individuals how to behave in this world in order to be successful.


Chinese thought never developed a cult of action: as actions intervene in the course of things, an action is always external to it and constitutes an initiative that is intrusive — it is a source of embarrassment; it intervenes as a hindrance. Therefore, the action is easy to spot and inevitably provokes elements of resistance.


War cannot for a single moment be separated from politics. Any tendency to belittle politics by isolating war from it and advocating the idea of war as an absolute is wrong and should be corrected.

But war has its own peculiar characteristics and in this sense, it cannot be equated with politics in general. “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” When politics develops to a certain stage beyond which it cannot proceed in the usual means, war breaks out to sweep the obstacles from the way

Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.

58. Living with Change

Lao Tzu

If leaders avoid interfering
people are honest and happy.
If leaders interfere
people are cunning and sad.

Failure rests upon success;
Success hides within failure;
Who knows how it will end?
The expected is always changing,
the expected turns into surprise,
success again turns into failure,
people’s confusion hardens and lingers.

Therefore, skilled leaders
consider more perspectives;
align actions with purpose, without pressure;
guide without commands.

Sun Tzu

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?

Le Guin

Taoists gain their ends without the use of means.

Ames & Hall

Opposites always entail each other, and can only be separated abstractly and at the risk of upsetting the rhythm of life by treating them as really separable. Enforcing order produces disorder. Attempts at overt control on behalf of a dyad at the expense of the other half, whether such manipulation is political or otherwise, simply makes things worse.

Coercion arises in a pointless attempt to promote one antinomy over the other, pushing any situation to an extreme. How do we respond to this never-ending spiral of reversion? If we have an understanding of the process as a whole, we can, while staying balanced at the centre, anticipate the movement between opposites.


Since mankind stands on shaky ground, it would be rude and obtrusive of leaders to shout commands, declare conclusions, and point in an exact direction. People don’t follow willingly when they feel forced, and they can’t understand what they are not allowed to examine by themselves.

59. Leading Motherly

Lao Tzu

Leading people and serving purpose
is like living off the land.
Living sparingly and responding quickly
means effectiveness.

With effectiveness
everything can be overcome;
when everything can be overcome,
you seem unlimited.

When you seem unlimited,
you can lead anything
and be the creative source
and nourish and extend it.

Lead like mothers to last long:
deep roots, firm base;
living long and seeing far.

Ames & Hall

This section works on two levels. On one plane, it focuses on a regimen of self-cultivation and the nourishing of one’s life-force; on a second plane, such a personal regimen prepares one to take a leading role in establishing a vision for the human community, and in bringing this vision to fruition.


The worthy leader must lead like a mother, based on care and yielding, on acting with caution and consideration. The mother works for her children, and not for her own benefit. Therefore, anyone being motherly in that fashion will be saluted, supported, and successful.

60. Cooking Small Fish

Lao Tzu

Leading large organisations
is like cooking small fish.

With purpose harmonising,
evil loses its power;
or rather,
evil loses its power to harm people;
and leaders avoid harming people.

When harm is gone,
integrity flows and returns.


If the fish is flipped too frequently it will break — a small fish can be spoiled simply by being handled. Excessive measures and actions are counterproductive and will only disrupt the overall harmony of the system. They only hinder the implicit transformation from taking place.

61. Lying Low

Lao Tzu

A great organisation flows down to be the world’s pool;
it is the female of the world.

The female engaging the male
keeps the balance
and succeeds by taking the lower place.

Therefore, a great organisation engaging a small
lowers itself to succeed.

A small organisation engaging a great
stays low to succeed.

Some succeed by becoming low,
others succeed by staying low.

A great organisation ultimately intends
to unite and protect people;
a small organisation ultimately intends
to serve people.

Both get what they intend
when the great one is low.


Humility (literally, the choice to put oneself below) is neither moral nor psychological; it is purely strategic.


Here we can see how “purely” strategic and effect-based the Chinese strategic thought is in nature, even to the degree of forsaking the claim to hegemony. Hence the Taoists are capable of developing a new approach to diplomacy that shares the “female” properties. Even though this sounds idealistic, this already marks a big difference from the old norms of power politics and hegemony — at least both big and small states could get what they want.

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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