The Art of Leadership: Purpose

Sections 1–6

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 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).

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;
labeling 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.


Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life.


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!

Ames & Hall

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.


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 re-contextualise re-form re-model
reason about what things do; not what things are named
seeing learning doing doubting
are the meaning of intelligent life.

2. Beyond Labels

Lao Tzu

What is labeled “beautiful” may also be labeled “ugly”;
what is labeled “good” may also be labeled “bad”;
hidden and visible give rise to each other;
difficult and easy complement each other;
long and short set each other off;
high and low complete each other;
notes and sounds harmonise with each other;
before and after follow one another.
Such Correlative Pairs form profound unities of opposites.

Skilled leaders
get things done without pressure and control;
teach beyond principles and generalisations.

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

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.

Therefore, 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 really a distinction between “that” and “this”?
Or, is “that” and “this” the same?

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

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


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.

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.

3. Maintaining Harmony

Lao Tzu

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

Therefore, skilled leaders:
still minds and open hearts;
fill bellies and strengthen bones;
share how to move beyond labels and fixed mental patterns;
show how to be content and avoid being led astray;
succeed without pressure and control;
so that harmony is maintained.

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.

4. Purpose

Lao Tzu

Purpose is empty
yet fills every vessel with endless supply;
the source of everything.

blunts the sharp;
unravels tangles;
harmonises light;
blends with dust.

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


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


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


Dust is a common Taoist metaphor for the noise and fuss of everyday life.

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.


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. Bellows

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
move from speech to silence;
avoiding exhaustion,
to keep the balance.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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