The Art of Leadership: Serving Without Interference

Sections 62–66

Photo: zulianię_/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).

62. Caring For All

Lao Tzu

Purpose is the center of everything:
prized by the able;
sheltering the lost.

Beautiful words can be traded,
noble deeds can enhance reputations,
if people lack them,
why reject them?

When leaders are installed
instead of presenting gifts
respectfully offer purpose.

The ancients honoured purpose.
They said: through it,
seekers find;
offenders are forgiven.
Therefore, it is the most valuable thing in the world.

Le Guin

I think the line of thought throughout the poem has to do with true reward as opposed to dishonourable gain, true giving as opposed to fake goods.

Ames & Hall

Comforting the least among us and surviving through the most trying of times are occasions for those who are better off to grow in greatness. Those who are suffering provide those more fortunate the precious opportunity to be generous and share what they have.


Leaders on all levels must understand that society can only improve if all its inhabitants are guided. If just the ones who already behave decently are cared for, the others will soon cause tremendous problems. When they are deserted and damned, the only thing remaining for them is to revolt. Caring for all is not only the compassionate thing to do. It’s also the most practical.

63. Serving Without Interference

Lao Tzu

Act without pressure and control;
serve without interference.

Savour the flavour of the unmixed;
treat small as large, few as many.

Repay hatred with kindness.

Consider the difficult while it is easy;
deal with the large while it is small.

The most difficult things in the world
start out easy;
the greatest things in the world
start small.

Therefore, skilled leaders
avoid great things
and so accomplish them.

Quick promises
mean little trust;
things considered easy
mean great difficulty.
Since skilled leaders
consider all this carefully
they are free of difficulties.

Sun Tzu

Skilled leaders' success looks easy since it is well-prepared.
Therefore their wisdom is without fame;
their courage without honour.
They engage without mistakes.
Without mistakes, success is certain since competition is already defeated.

Ames & Hall

In culinary terms, those who have the most comprehensive and inclusive taste make no final discrimination. They just try with imagination to find a productive use for things, and to enjoy all things big and small as they come.

There are distinctive characteristics of good Chinese cooking. A primary feature reflected in the never-ending menu is the stubborn attempt to optimise a finite number yet surprisingly the imaginative range of ingredients. This is done by inventing any number of ways of preserving and extending them and then combining them in the different sequences, colors, textures, flavors, fragrances, and so on. Use a little bit of the more pricey ingredients to flavor a lot of the more common ones. Take advantage of seasonableness. Prepare the food to provide maximum surface area and cook it so as to sear in the nutrients while minimising the expenditure of fuel.

Importantly, getting the most out of your ingredients means keeping the garbage can empty. This effort at maximisation is pursued with minimum wastage.

Part of getting the most out of your ingredients in the life-experience has to do with deference to detail. Understanding things in their relationship to the process as a whole enables one to anticipate a developing situation while it is still embryonic. By responding to circumstances while they are inchoate, one is able to coordinate them both positively and negatively to the best effect.


We are often stuck in the misconception that the world is a static place, although we can see that everything in it moves and changes constantly. When problems appear, they are usually quite small and nonthreatening. So we ignore them, thinking that they will stay that size forever. They don’t.

Any problem not dealt with will grow. That’s the way it is. We need to learn to deal with problems immediately. Then we will find that we need to do almost nothing.

Actually, many problems are initially so small that they are solved just by recognizing them. By discovering and exposing them, we make our world immune to their potential harm.

64. Minor Changes, Major Consequences

Lao Tzu

At rest is easy to hold;
yet to occur is easy to plan.
Brittle is easy to break;
fine is easy to scatter.

Create conditions
for things to happen;
create order
before chaos gets underway.

A tree too big to embrace
grows from a lone shoot;
a nine-story tower
rises from a sole brick;
a thousand-mile journey
starts with a single step.

Pressure and you ruin it.
Control and you lose it.
Since skilled leaders avoid pressure
they avoid ruining it.
Since skilled leaders avoid control
they avoid losing it.

People often fail
when success is near.
So, proceed as carefully at the end
as at the beginning
to avoid failure.

Therefore, skilled leaders
act with respectful intent;
avoid prizing rare goods;
learn to unlearn;
return to what others overlooked;
help self-organisation by avoiding interference.

Ames & Hall

The capacity to see where a situation has come from and to anticipate where it is going — precludes the habit of resolving the fluid process of experience into isolated “things” and discourages the one-sided and exclusive judgments that come with it.

A detailed understanding of the minutia within situations enables one to encourage or discourage processual fluctuations in their inchoate phase before they evolve into the overwhelming force of circumstances.

It is salutary to understand that each major event has a modest beginning, that minor changes can have cascading consequences, and that the devil and the angels, too, are in the details.


The action certainly takes place but upstream, and it happens so far upstream that it is not noticed.

The earlier one intervenes, upstream, the less one needs to act.

Instead of “daring to act”, the thing to do is to “help the spontaneous development of all the existing elements”, in other words, to assist whatever happens naturally.

The favourite example of this is the growth of plants. One must neither pull on plants to hasten their growth (an image of direct action), nor must one fail to hoe the earth around them so as to encourage their growth (by creating favourable conditions for it). You cannot force a plant to grow by means of coercion, but neither should you neglect it. What you should do is liberate it from whatever might impede its development. You must allow it to grow. Such tactics are equally effective at the level of politics. Skilled leaders eliminate constraints and exclusions, makes it possible for all that exists to develop as suits it; they act in such a way that things can happen of their own accord. Even if the doing becomes minimal, so discreet as to be hardly discernible, allowing things to happen constitutes active involvement.

65. Reaching Great Harmony

Lao Tzu

In ancient times, skilled leaders:
used purpose
and hid their intelligence
since people distrust know-it-alls.

Leading with knowledge only
brings grief.
Leading with compassionate knowledge
brings joy.
Knowing this Correlative Pair
is to possess a powerful pattern.

Understanding this enduring pattern is effectiveness:
it goes deep and far;
it returns all things to their source,
reaching great harmony.


Do away with crafty, self-serving knowledge that does indeed make for bad relations in people.


Each phenomenon in nature is given a name, as is every plant and animal. That doesn’t mean we understand them, nor does it mean that we are clear about their roles in the world.

We should halt the naming, and start our quest for the truth behind all things.

66. Going Lower

Lao Tzu

Rivers and seas rule a hundred valleys
because they go lower.
So, they are the masters of the hundred valleys.

Therefore, those who wish to guide
speak as if they are below;
those who wish to lead
speak as if they are behind.

So, skilled leaders
guide without burdening;
lead without hindering.
Therefore, the whole world
delights in promoting them tirelessly.
And, since they go with the flow,
they overcame every challenge.

Ames & Hall

Skilled leaders like the rivers and seas perform a synchronising function, perceived from a particular perspective, has a nobility to it. Both skilled leaders and seas do what they do naturally and well.

Far from being merely passive players buffeted about in the emerging order, both skilled leaders and seas actively coordinate the massive quantum of energy that flows into them from their constituents and maximise its circulation to the advantage of all. Because such coordination benefits all equally, the streams and the common people defer happily to their coordinators.

What distinguishes the contribution of both the waterways and the skilled leaders is that they are able to be as effective as they are because they use accommodation rather than coercion as the basis for organising their worlds.

Nonaka & Zhu

We have just pulled down a tyranny of strategy-as-planning; we do not need another tyranny of strategy-as-ad-hoc-responses.

Skilled leaders encourage proper competition, win-win strategy, making a beneficial difference for all and sustainable development in a world where ‘we are one with all things’. Skilled leaders need to engage in this-wordly affairs with a shared purpose, getting jobs done in appropriate, fitting ways.


Following behind people, instead of being an obstruction in front of them, means being sensitive to their needs. Merely hiding in the back of the line, right after pointing the way, is not enough.

The good leader should always be sensitive to where people really want to go, what directions they favour and which ones they want to avoid. That’s following behind.

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




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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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