Leadership Advice from the Tao Te Ching

As I mentioned in the lessons learned from the software architecture workshop, we can draw inspiration and lessons from all over.

Today I want to share some wonderful leadership advice courtesy of Lao-Tzu (~500BC), the founder of Taoism. This advice comes from verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching.

In this verse, Lao-Tzu is discussing the characteristics of a true leader. According to Taoism and Zen, words are a fundamentally problematic and limited form of communication. As such, I hesitate to explain what I think you should conclude. I will allow the text to directly impart its message to you.

I've provided three different English translations of this passage. Since translations are always an abstraction of the original text, I hope that comparing different translations provides you with a better sense of the meaning behind the text.

Tao Te Ching, 17

Stephen Mitchell's translation:

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, "Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!"

Red Pine's translation:

During the High Ages people knew they were there
then people loved and praised them
then they feared them
finally they despised them
when honesty fails
dishonesty prevails
hesitate and weigh your words
when their work succeeds
let people think they did it

I'm not sure whose translation this is, but it seems to float around the internet from time to time:

True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.

To give no trust
is to get no trust.

When the work's done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.

Commentary on the Text

These notes on verse 17 are included in Red Pine's translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Ho-Shang Kung:

When those above treat those below with dishonesty, those below respond with deceit.

Sung Ch'ang-Hsing:

The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.

Huang Yuan-Chi:

What we do to cultivate ourselves is what we do to govern the world. And among the arts we cultivate, the most subtle of all is honesty, which is the beginning and end of cultivation. When we embrace the truth, the world enjoys peace. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers. From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied.

Wu Ch-eng:

The reason sages don't speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and so people can live their lives in peace. And when their work succeeds and people's lives go well, people think that is just the way it is supposed to be. They don't realize it was made possible by those on high.


When the ruler views his ministers as his hands and feet, they regard him as their heart and soul. When he views them as dirt and weeds, they regard him as an enemy and a thief

Lu Hsi-Sheng:

The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all. When their virtue diminished, they ruled with kindness and justice, and the people loved and praised them. When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people's hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them. When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people's minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.

Further Reading