If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are restless and disturbed.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.
Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on;
good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Good things seem to change into bad,
and bad things often turn out for good.
These things have always been hard
Thus the Master is content
to serve as an example
and not to impose his will.
He is pointed but does not pierce;
he straightens, but does not disrupt;
he illuminates, but does not dazzle.
Lao Tzu’s lessons on leadership are not necessarily easily for the mind to grasp. The key is to lead by allowing, to nurture without imposing and to trust that people will manifest their own innate virtue if they are allowed to do so. The most common objections to this come from our fears that without adequate control and laws, bedlam would ensue and people would go about stealing, pillaging and killing. Is this true however?
All but the most dysfunctional have an innate sense of rightness that runs far deeper than any outwardly-imposed codes of morality and conduct. Imposing such sanctions only indicates our deeply-held misconception that our true nature is something grotesque and dangerous, that we are at core ‘wretched sinners’ as some religions purport.
This notion runs counter to the Tao. The more we try to impose what we think others ought to do, how they should be happy and what ways they should behave in terms of ‘morality’ (which is entirely a mind-made concept and which clearly is context and culture-dependent), the more we stifle them and cement over their true nature as expressions of the Tao.
Allow people to know what is best for them, what is right for them. Maybe they will initially make mistakes, for we have been driven by our mind and outer senses for too long, while being ignorant of our true inner connection and power. But it is from our mistakes that we learn.
‘Good fortune’ and ‘bad fortune’ are again but concepts in the mind and Lao Tzu reminds us that the two are indefinable and inseparable. Good fortune often comes from disaster and misfortune, while often the most seemingly fortuitous things contain the seeds of misfortune within them. Don’t be led by the mind and its notions of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Be led instead by a deeper understanding of the Tao, in which you see all threads interconnecting to create the perfect tapestry that we call ‘life’.
The final lines tell us that the best way to govern is by example and not by imposing our will. This encapsulates the essence of the Tao Te Ching’s teaching on leadership, which, as noted before, is relevant to anyone in any position of power or authority, from those in government to CEOs, school teachers and parents. Lead gently, but pointedly, don’t impose unnecessarily and illuminate but do not dazzle. This is to lead in accord with the Tao.