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Turning down the heat – a Daoist perspective…

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

A piece by Caritas consultant Dr Chris Campbell

A recent study of entrepreneurship suggested that, ‘By hustling, entrepreneurs can quickly try things out, get rapid feedback, and discover new insights and perspectives that are not readily available.’

I should like to offer an alternative approach to temper this very Western go-get approach - one drawn from the Chinese Daoist philosopher Laozi (fourth century BCE) and in particular from his text Daodejing, sometimes translated as the ‘Classic of the Way and Virtue’. Laozi’s teachings concern the Dao or ‘Way’ and how this finds expression in ‘virtue’ (de), as practised through ‘naturalness’ (ziran) and ‘nonaction’ (wuwei).

Daoists look to nature for their values, with the Dao, or Way, being the natural way of nature. The behaviour of water is an often-used analogy to illustrate the Daoist virtues of flow, spontaneity and change:

‘Highest good is like water.

Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.’ (Laozi, chapter 8)

But it is the Daoist concept of wuwei that offers an alternative to entrepreneurial hustle. Wuwei ‘presents the essential principle of action in Daoism’ and is sometimes represented as ‘non-action’. This is not the non-action of the passive or of the idle wastrel. Wuwei is being responsive to the natural flow of things and acting without force and in accordance with the Dao, or Way. Laozi writes,

‘The way never acts yet nothing is left undone.

Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,

The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.’ (Laozi, chapter 37)

We are encouraged to be spontaneous, self-aware and able to respond naturally, in accord with our individual wuwei (acting without force but following the natural Way) and in tandem with the Daoist concept of ziran (adhering to the principle of nature). Taken together, the Daoist approach of wuwei and ziran ‘presents two complementing modes of self-organisation’.

So, what might the ‘lords and princes’ of today’s organisations take from Laozi? A leader, guided by wuwei, might be less of an interventionist, less directing and more trusting thereby empowering and enabling her team to act on their own initiative without constant correction and interference. Such practice requires a culture of shared values where all have been able to contribute to developing the strategic vision. Individual methods and goals become embedded and constantly enriched through open and honest conversations.

Laozi also speak directly to leaders when he writes, ‘governing a large state is like boiling a small fish’ (Laozi, chapter 60). Cooking a small fish whole requires just the right amount of seasoning, correct temperature but little turning in the pan least it falls apart – in short, in harmony with the nature of the dish and with as little interference as possible. To pursue the analogy, a Daoist approach would be to establish the right conditions, practise restraint and allow natural forces to take their course. Laozi also offers the following commentary on leadership styles:

‘The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to her subjects.

Next comes the ruler they love and praise;

Next comes one they fear;

Next comes one with whom they take liberties.

Hesitant, she does not utter words lightly.

When her task is accomplished and her work done

The people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’ (Laozi, chapter 17)

Where do you believe you sit within this framework? And where would your colleagues place you? A leader following the Dao acts in accord with wuwei. Colleagues are hardly aware of her presence. She is not egotistical and does not grandstand or micromanage. Establishing a shared strategy and a collective sense of purpose allows the team to work without constant interruption. By working with the with the natural flow (ziran) of events, success ‘happens to us naturally’ – organically.

And when success is achieved and fortunes are made, Laozi counsels humility:

‘To be overbearing when one has wealth and position Is to bring calamity upon oneself.

To retire when the task is accomplished Is the way of heaven.’

Daoist philosophy offers a more holistic approach to leadership. A way of establishing an alternative and naturalistic yet successful business culture. For as Laozi writes, ‘the way begets one; one begets two; two begets three; three begets the myriad creatures’.

Dr Chris Campbell is a philosopher and research associate at University College London.

Please use our contact form should you wish to explore a Daoist approach in your own organisation.


Fisher, G., Stevenson, R., Neubert, E., Burnell D., Kuratko, D. 2020. Entrepreneurial Hustle: ‘Navigating Uncertainty and Enrolling Venture Stakeholders through Urgent and Unorthodox Action’. Journal of Management Studies (57)

Hennig, A. 2017. ‘Daoism in Management’. Philosophy of Management

Lao, D.C. 2000. ‘Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching’. Penguin Books

March 2022

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