Purpose and Integrity for Sustainable Success in Turbulent Times

The Art of Leadership: Purpose

Sections 1–6

Erik Schön
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
9 min readDec 24, 2020


42. Photo: Mark König/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.

1. Guide to the Essence

Lao Tzu

Purpose is a guide rather than a fixed target;
labels help when they are temporary.
The world began without labels;
labelling everything was the starting point.

Move beyond labels and fixed mental patterns
to see the whole;
use labels and fixed mental patterns
to see the parts.

Correlative Pairs form unities
although the parts look to be opposing.
Such unities are profound;
profound guides to the essence of everything.

Kimura Kyūho

— Everything written symbols can say has already passed by. They are like tracks left by animals. That is why the masters of meditation refuse to accept that writings are final. The aim is to reach true being by means of those tracks, those letters, those signs — but reality itself is not a sign, and it leaves no tracks. It doesn’t come to us by way of letters or words. We can go towards it, by following those words and letters back to what they came from. But so long as we are preoccupied with symbols, theories and opinions, we will fail to reach the principle.
— But when we give up symbols and opinions, aren’t we left in the utter
nothingness of being?
— Yes.

Ames & Hall

Naming with fixed references is a way of making distinctions in order to function effectively that can distort the way in which we understand the world by institutionalising and enforce an overly static vision of the world, and in doing so, deprive both language and life of their creative possibilities.

We try to be precise in denoting the events that make up our experience, new associations are constantly arising that challenge our terms of reference. Process insists that these events and their meanings for us be ever fluid and changing.

Derek M.C. Yuen

Chinese dialectics is based on Correlative Pairs and uses contradictions to understand relations between objects or events, to transcend or integrate apparent oppositions, or even to embrace clashing but instructive viewpoints. Not only is the Chinese dialectical system far less prone to the cognitive deadlock that results from paradox, but it also provides a powerful tool to arrive at a better understanding of certain situations.

As Correlative Pairs are at once interconnected, interpenetrating, and interdependent in an uninterrupted manner, the polarity of the situation essentially rests in them (or the correlative pair continuum). In the same way, in warfare, the polarity of the situation stems from the antagonism between the forces involved. Far from being two irreducible or even mutually exclusive states, the constituents are two consecutive stages that are produced by the deployment of reality.

It can be a mistake to reject conclusions because they seem formally contradictory; such conclusions are merely reflections of things, and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.

François Jullien

Instead of excluding each other, Correlative Pairs mutually condition each other, and this constitutes the logic from which skilled leaders derive their strategy. For, instead of seeing no farther than the opposed aspects of things, as common sense pictures them, and keeping them isolated, skilled leaders are able to discern their interdependence and to profit from it. This is what they exploit.

Edward Tufte

                To see the ordinary so intensely 
that the ordinary becomes extraordinary, becoming
so focussed, so specific about something,
that it becomes something other than what it ordinarily is.
Staying in optical experiences, forgetting the name of what one sees
laughing playful eyes shut up and look
defamiliarise decontextualise recontextualise reform remodel
reason about what things do not what things are named seeing learning doing doubting
are the meaning of intelligent life

2. Beyond Labels and Opposites

Lao Tzu

What is labelled “beautiful”
may also be labelled “ugly”;
what is labelled “good”
may also be labelled “bad”;

Hidden and visible generate each other;
difficult and easy complete each other;
long and short contrast each other;
high and low collapse each other;
tone and noise harmonise each other;
before and after follow each other.
Such Correlative Pairs form profound unities of opposites.

Skilled leaders
get things done without pressure and control;
teach beyond words and labels.

In all that happens, skilled leaders
facilitate without initiating;
serve without interfering;
succeed without taking credit.
When credit is given, success endures.

John Boyd

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

Chuang Tzu

Everything can be looked at that way;
everything can be looked at this way.

One person sees things differently from others;
one can only know things through one’s perspective.

Therefore, “that” comes “this” and “this” follows from “that”;
this is the parallel birth of “this” and “that”;
born together they die together;
dying together they are born together.

If they are possible in one way, they are impossible in another.
If they are impossible in one way, they are possible in another.

If they are right in one way, they are wrong in another.
If they are wrong in one way, they are right in another.

Skilled leaders avoid this confusion and see things in their natural light:
“this” is also “that”; “that” is also “this”;
“that” can be right or wrong; “this” can be right or wrong.
Is there a distinction between “that” and “this”?
Or, is “that” and “this” the same?

That “that” and “this” cease to be opposites is the essence.
It is a constant axis at the centre of a circle responding to endless changes:
“right” is an endless change;
“wrong” is an endless change.

Use the light of reason at the constant centre
to move beyond “right” and “wrong”.

Hans Granqvist

In other words: “this” and “that”, in their mutual opposing positions as right and wrong, are like a constantly spinning circle. But the person seeing things from the perspective of the whole stands metaphorically in the centre of the circle. She understands everything going on in the circle’s movements without participating in the movements. This is not due to her passiveness or resignation, rather on her moving beyond the limitations and seeing things from the perspective of the whole System. From this perspective, everything is just the way it is: “Everything is something which is good for something.” Everything and all that happens is the same in that they are part of the whole System. From this perspective, things and events, in spite of their differences, are united in a single entity.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Values and beliefs are not only culturally constructed but also part of the interplay of Yin and Yang, the great reversals that maintain the living balance of the world. To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.

Ames & Hall

To favour one distinction over another — for example the beautiful over the ugly — would make it exclusive and thus impoverishing. These categories are correlative and mutually entailing. Not only do you not get one without the other but, simply put, every constituent is necessary for every other constituent to be what it is.

The etymology of the character is culinary, Harmony being the art of combining and blending two or more ingredients so that they enhance one another without losing their distinctive flavours. Harmony entails both the individual integrity of the particular ingredient and its integration into some larger whole.

Taiichi Ohno

Don’t call it anything. If you call it something, managers will expect it to come in a box.


Don’t call it anything: if it has a name, people (including you) will waste time arguing about what ‘it’ is and isn’t. Call it something: otherwise nobody can ever talk about it!

3. Living Peacefully

Lao Tzu

Promote heroes,
and people will compete;
hoard treasures,
and people will steal;
show valuables,
and people will rage.

Therefore, skilled leaders:
still minds and open hearts;
strengthen resolve and weaken rigidity;
share Unprincipled Knowledge;
show how to be content and avoid being led astray;
succeed without pressure and control;
to live in peace.

Ames & Hall

The people, encouraged to be free from assumptions and inclusive of alternatives, develop a tolerance and accommodation that immunises them from purveyors of malignant prejudices. It is only empathy and openness that can inspire the community to go beyond the mediocrity of unilaterally legislated values.

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.

Nonaka & Zhu

Harmony incorporates specific personal goals, in the plural, in the making. Strategy is about adjusting and coordinating such personal goals into a shared common good appropriate to particular situations. Since situations are ever-changing in unrepeated and unpredictable ways, the more diverse the community’s capacities to act, the more chances it will have to sense, seize and realise emerging opportunities.

4. Purpose

Lao Tzu

Purpose is unfinished, yet useful
fills every vessel with endless supply;
the source of everything.

makes connections;
unravels tangles;
harmonises perspectives;
blends with life.

provides depth;
preserves integrity;
emerges from diverse sources;
builds over time.

Kent Beck

Purpose is a surer path to productivity than pressure. Pressure keeps knocking you off the path. Purpose keeps bringing you back onto the path.

Steve Jobs

If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.

Ames & Hall

“Goblet” words are words that are renewed with each use because when they are filled up with meaning, they tip themselves out, only to be filled again. Such language is appropriate to the fluidity and irreversibility of experience.

François Jullien

Whereas that which is full is always limited, for one can see where it ends, emptiness is inexhaustible, a bottomless source. Since emptiness is not confrontational, never opposes anything, it can never provoke any resistance, and so it can never be exhausted. Images that represent emptiness, images that express the possibility of things passing through: a valley, a door or gateway and a bellows.

5. Straw Dogs, Bellows and Balance

Lao Tzu

In a world of conventional rules,
things are straw dogs
and leaders treat people like straw dogs.

The space between sky and ground is like a bellows:
empty without being exhausted,
always producing more.

People are unlike bellows, so they
move from speech to silence;
avoiding exhaustion,
to keep the balance.

J. L. L. Duyvendak

Straw dogs are an image of ruthlessness. They were used as sacrificial offerings in ancient China. During the sacrifice itself they were treated with ceremonial reverence, but once they had been used, they were thrown away and trampled on.

Zhang Ruimin

In every big company, employees are treated like tools to be used by the company. Western companies are dedicated to maximising shareholders’ value, not employees’ value. That is why, from day one when I became leader of Haier, I have never stopped thinking about providing opportunities and platforms where everybody can realise their potential.

Stefan Stenudd

We should be like straw dogs in the sense that none is worth more than the survival of the society that contains us all.

We don’t need to describe everything we experience, or to express all that we learn. Words are mere shadows. If we focus on them we may lose sight of the reality they try to imitate. Instead, we should trust that our inner stillness finds purpose (tao), and makes us see the patterns in the constant bombardment of information that is our daily life. Inner balance and steadfastness is like the keel of a boat that’s unaffected by the waves on the sea. That’s how the human mind should be – calm in whatever turmoil surrounds it, confident even in a rain of urgent questions. The answers are to be found in that calm.

François Jullien

Bellows are empty but never collapse and when you move them, you always get more to emerge from them (more effect).

6. Nourishing Purpose

Lao Tzu

A nourishing purpose lives forever;
it is called the hidden creator.

Such purpose:
shapes climate and landscape;
endures like a silk thread;
is effective without effort.

Stefan Stenudd

The essence is as vague and fine as cobweb, because it’s a principle, a natural law, with no substance of its own. That’s why it lasts, no matter how much it is used.

Lin Yutang

Making use of nature’s laws accomplishes results “without effort”.

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