Management Gurus: Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu was master of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and the author of its oldest existing book, the Tao Te-Ching. It's hard to be exact about Lao Tzu's life. It is thought he was born in 570 BC and lived in the ancient capital of China, Luoyang. He was appointed Keeper of the Imperial Archives by the King of Zhou and it was in this role that he met with Confucius who had heard of his wisdom and insight. Much later, as the kingdom disintegrated, Lao Tzu decided to leave the kingdom. Legend has it that he escaped on a buffalo. When he came to the Han Gu Pass, the keeper of the pass refused to let him leave until he had written down all his wisdom. He got down off his buffalo and immediately wrote the Tao Te Ching. He then went on his way and was never heard of again.
Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu has much to say about how man should govern himself and others. For followers of "the way" of Tao, the harsh rule of man over man and the natural order of things was a misreading of the purpose of existence and bound to end in grief. Taoist leaders strived to understand the inner nature of things, including people, and work with them rather than against them in the way of the Confucianists. Consequently, where Confucianists are forceful, Taoists are yielding; where Confucianists are powerful, Taoists are effortless; where Confucianists exploit, Taoists let go. Today, as the developed world moves out of an industrial mode of work into an information-based mode of work, many management thinkers have come to see the relevance of Lao Tzu's thinking to a new way of working with others.
What Lao Tzu Says About Managing People
Here are 3 quotes from the Tao Te Ching that summarises Lao Tzu's contribution to management thinking:
1. "A leader is best when people are hardly aware of his existence; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst, when they despise him.
Fail to honour people, and they will fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, 'We did this ourselves.'"
2. "By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all. Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them."
3. “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”
Other Resources on Lao Tzu
More on the life and influence of Lao Tzu here.
Download this illustrated version of the Tao Te Ching in pdf form.
Read Benjamin Hoff's "The Tao of Pooh" for an enchanting and life-changing view of Taoism.