The Art of Leadership: We Did It Ourselves

Sections 14–19

Photo by Shane Rounce on 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).

14. Beyond Grasping

Lao Tzu

Looking without seeing,
it is too subtle.
Listening without hearing,
it is too faint.
Groping without touching,
it is too elusive.

These three are beyond grasping.
Therefore they become one.

it is beyond brightness;
it is beyond darkness;
dimly visible,
defying labelling;
moving everything back to where there is nothing;
a formless setup.

Following it, unable to see its back;
meeting it, unable to see its front.

Hold tightly onto purpose:
to handle the present;
to understand the past;
this is called the record of purpose.

Ames & Hall

Understanding how experience unfolds not only enables one to locate the human life within this process, but also is instructive as to how to optimise this opportunity.

15. Beyond Knowing

Lao Tzu

Skilled leaders of old
followed purpose in a world
volatile and unknowable.

Deep beyond knowing, they can be described thus:
cautious, like crossing a winter stream;
hesitant, like respecting one’s neighbours;
polite, like a guest;
yielding, like ice about to melt;
blank, like uncarved wood;
open, like a valley;
obscure, like muddy water.

Who can wait calmly while the mud settles?
Who can rest until the timing is right?

Those who follow purpose, avoid fullness.
Because they avoid fullness,
they remain hidden and unfinished.

Ames & Hall

The road is always under construction, and the hands at work are many.


It’s the Way of living close to nature, or more precisely: close to the natural.

16. Return To the Roots

Lao Tzu

Attain complete emptiness,
keep the balance.

Everything rises together,
witness the return.

Things grow and grow,
and all return to their roots;
returning to the roots gives balance.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
Failing to understand the ordinary:
blindness courting disaster.

Understanding the ordinary:

Mind-opening leads to compassion,
compassion to nobility,
nobility to universality,
universality to purpose.

Purpose endures.
Your body dies, free of danger.

Ames & Hall

The optimum posture of the heart-and-mind (心 xīn) is to achieve and sustain an emptiness and equilibrium that will enable it to take in the world as it is without imposing its own presuppositions upon it, and without allowing the world to cause it agitation. Accommodation, far from passive or weak, is the source of the fullness of strength and influence, timeliness and efficacy. Accommodation, inclusivity and tolerance are the most effective means of achieving a stable and enduring social, political, and cosmic order.


When you relax from your daily strife, you can notice the patterns of the world around you. You become aware of it all, because you reduce your own inner noise.

17. We Did It Ourselves

Lao Tzu

The most skilled leaders are present;
next: loved and praised;
next: feared;
last: hated.

Trust and respect people to earn their trust and respect.
Avoid pressure and control.

With everything accomplished,
people say:
we did it ourselves.

Le Guin

The invisible leader, who gets things done in such a way that people think they did it themselves, isn’t one who manipulates others from behind the scenes; just the opposite. Again, it’s a matter of “doing without doing”: uncompetitive, unworried, trustful accomplishment, power that is not force. An example or analogy might be a very good teacher, or the truest voice in a group of singers.


It is by not believing others, by not trusting them that you turn them into liars. Similarly it is the “lack” of a quality in leaders which creates in the people every other fault and crime.

Ames & Hall

A leader’s occupation is Wuwei: to bring together the concerted efforts of the people and to synchronise them with situated particulars, creating maximum benefit in non-coercive ways.

Nonaka & Zhu

Making one’s way in the world , not withdrawing from it is a virtue. Leaders engage in this-wordly affairs, doing so wisely, without coercion. As a leader, you need to bring all the pragmatic spirits together and put them into action. Your job is to strive for ‘all things accomplished’ not to withdraw from them.


This type of leadership is not without its rewards. Those who practice it find deep satisfaction in being part of an organization capable of producing results that people truly care about. In fact, they find these rewards more enduring than the power and praise granted to more traditional leaders.

18. Without Purpose

Lao Tzu

Without purpose,
conventional rules and righteousness appear.

Without objective truth,
grand false claims appear.

Without mutual respect,
values and behaviours appear.

Without stability,
loyalists come forth.

Ames & Hall

When the authentic way of being human is thriving in the world, the family-based natural morality of the community takes care of itself, enabling its members to flourish and prosper. It is only in a period of decadence and decline that philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in so doing, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalising an artificial alternative that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment. What was spontaneous natural feeling becomes external rules of conduct, where the invocation of moral rules as an alternative to the spontaneous expression of feeling is dehumanising.

Chuang Tzu

The problem of how terms and attributes are to be delimited, leads one in precisely the wrong direction. Classifying or delimiting knowledge fractures greater knowledge.

Nonaka & Zhu

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are famous for their caution against abstract concepts, fixed categories, all-purpose definitions and context-free frameworks. They called these things dawei, grand false claims. Grand false claims are man-made devices imposed on nature.


When people are unsettled, changes in government are more likely to take place. That makes the ministers more eager to demonstrate their loyalty, in order to keep their own positions in the turmoil, but their loyalty is actually less trustworthy in such a situation. The ministers who proclaim their loyalty the loudest, are the most likely to shift at the moment it’s to their benefit.

19. Plain Silk and Uncarved Wood

Lao Tzu

Banish judgements, dare to unlearn,
and people understand.

Banish pressure, discard righteousness,
and people respect each other.

Banish cleverness, discard profit:
and thieves disappear.

If more is needed,
look at plain silk, hold uncarved wood.
lessen selfishness, diminish desire.

Le Guin

“Plain silk” and “uncarved wood” are images traditionally associated with the characters 素 (, simple, plain) and 樸 (, pure, honest).

Ames & Hall

By getting rid of a reliance upon an unnatural moral catechism, we can restore our pristine ethical sensibilities.

Bruce Lee

It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum — in other words to hack away the unessential.

Steve Jobs

So that’s our approach. Very simple, and we’re really shooting for Museum of Modern Art quality. The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.

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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