Who's in charge here? (chapters 17 and 57)



Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.

Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.


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In today’s episode we’re going to look at two chapters. We’ll continue our journey through the TTC by looking at chapter 17, and then we’ll jump ahead forty chapters to talk about 57, which connects really well with 17. Both of these chapters talk about leadership - a kind of leadership that totally flips any of our preconceived notions about good leaders upside down.


Chapter 17 - The non-existent leader


The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

-Translator: J.H. McDonald


We’ve all been taught or intuitively figured out the kinds of things that make a good leader, and for the most part, this chapter turns all of it upside down. The best leader, according to Lao Tzu, is one who seemingly doesn’t exist at all! Chapter 17 tells us that the kind of quiet, unassuming, take-no-credit kind of leadership is the best kind. Now, if you ask me and not Lao Tzu, I would say that there are definitely times and situations where we need a strong, decisive leader to help guide the sinking ship or pull people out of the mud, but I think if we listen carefully to this chapter, we will see that those situations should be the exception to the rule.


So, let’s work through it piece by piece, starting with the first stanza. I think it’s easiest to move backwards from the fourth line to the first on this one. No one will have any problems agreeing that if the people hate a leader, he’s probably the worst kind. That much is obvious.


The next kind of leader, working backwards, is the one who is feared. This doesn’t have to mean they are bad people or even bad to the people, but their leadership is based in fear because of the power they hold. I can think of a couple leaders I have known who had this kind of power. Both of them were kind and loving deep down, which I eventually found out after I had gotten to know them more, but most of the time they were respected and obeyed because they had an intimidating presence and they were extremely clear about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. Now, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I still love and respect both of those men immensely; but I wonder how much more I would have felt that respect for them if somehow this authority had been translated to me in a way that called me to love and praise them.


And that’s the next kind of leader: one who is loved and praised. This one pretty much speaks for itself. We can all think of leaders who are inspiring, fun, creative, engaging, and deeply loved because we know that they deeply love us. Actually, you can scratch those first few items, because a great leader doesn’t need to be charismatic and good with people to be loved and praised. I’ve known pastors, bosses, and directors who earned this kind of love and respect, and there’s really nothing like it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but according to Lao Tzu, it isn’t the best kind of leadership.


We are told that the absolute best kind of leadership is, paradoxically, the kind where people hardly know you exist at all. Now, this could mean a few different things. Obviously this is more of a metaphor than a literal statement. In most cases, people are going to know who the leader is, and obviously they’re going to hear from and interact with the leader. But there’s something to be said about this so-called “non-existent” leader. R. Joseph Owles’ half-translation, half-paraphrase called Everyone’s Tao te Ching expands on this one line and helps us get a bigger picture of what it might mean:


He is like a silhouette in the distance.

He doesn’t get involved in every detail. He doesn’t meddle in what everyone is doing. He doesn’t make himself the center of attention.

He just does his job and serves as an example.

He lets the people do their jobs and forget all about him.

-Translator: R. Joseph Owles


The goal of this kind of leader isn’t to flex power on the underlings. Putting too much emphasis on hierarchy and “who’s in charge of who” actually sabotages group dynamics, rather than helping them. Of course, depending on the organization and group, there has to be some measure of hierarchy anywhere - not every place can just be a free-for-all.


But the difference here is that the so-called “non-existent leader” does everything possible to increase freedom and ownership in the group. By giving people more freedom to make their voices heard as well as use their gifts, talents, abilities, they create an opportunity for the group to really be a group. When people feel ownership, then heavy-handed, coercing, hierarchical leadership isn’t necessary nearly as often, if ever. So if you’re in leadership, doing it this way is actually doing yourself a favor! Listen to the second part of this chapter:


The Masters don’t give orders;

they work with everybody else.

When the job’s done,

people are amazed

at what they accomplished.

-Translator: Ron Hogan


Now that’s profound. When the job is finished, the people say, “Look at all we did!” Now that’s good leadership - but it also takes a truly humble person to make it work. Luckily, humility is something that we can cultivate … trust me on that. I’m certainly less prideful now than I was before, and I’m sure in five years I’ll look back and say the same thing. Or at least, I hope I will. Here’s another great translation of this section:


The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

-Translator: J.H. McDonald


I’m thinking here of a worship leader in my former church. The “worship pastor” was the big guy with the big personality. He was loud, funny, and super energetic. He was the face of the ministry. And he was a leader in many senses.


But the real leader, or at least the other leader, was the quiet, unassuming, brilliant guitar player with a degree in music composition. He was the one who picked the songs, printed the sheets, arranged everything, and got the band all on the same page. He was the one who offered quiet little suggestions on how we could play better together, or what the bassist should do in this part of the song.


I don’t think anyone attending a practice or a Sunday service (unless they were a very experienced musician) would have looked on that stage and thought, “Now there’s the worship leader!” But in so many senses of the word, he was. And yet, surprisingly enough, at the end of a good set, we all said, “Amazing! Look at what we did!” This paraphrase is a perfect description of him:


You will say little and accomplish much,

and when goals are completed,

the public will say, “Look at all we accomplished!”

and when you arrive at your destination,

all those who travel with you will say, “Look! We made it!”

-Translator: David Jones


In the podcast, I take a look at the middle section of chapter 17, which talks about giving and receiving trust, but to keep this article down to length, I won’t be addressing it here.


Chapter 57 - The non-controlling leader


Chapter 57 continues the discussion on leadership, which is one of the bigger themes throughout the TTC, since a lot of it was written to help political leaders, military generals, etc. In this chapter, the big idea is that the good leader is non-controlling, and that the good government is non-interfering. In the podcast, I discuss the political and societal implications of the text, which I call a “manifesto for libertarianism,” but my focus here will be on the more personal side.


If you want to be a great leader,

you must learn to follow the Tao.

Stop trying to control.

Let go of fixed plans and concepts,

and the world will govern itself.


The more prohibitions you have,

the less virtuous people will be.

The more weapons you have,

the less secure people will be.

The more subsidies you have,

the less self-reliant people will be.


Therefore the Master says:

I let go of the law,

and people become honest.

I let go of economics,

and people become prosperous.

I let go of religion,

and people become serene.

I let go of all desire for the common good,

and the good becomes common as grass.

-Stephen Mitchell


As we consider the “personal application” side of this chapter, we have to go a little bit outside of Lao Tzu’s original meaning, but I don’t have too much of a problem with that. To draw a Christian parallel, preachers do this with the Bible all the time when they make topical sermons, so I don’t see it as disingenuous to do the same with the TTC.


The best translation I’ve seen that takes these concepts out of the realm of government and into spiritual formation as a leader in any community is Marshall Davis. It’s important to remember that leaders can take all different forms. You don’t have to be a manager, CEO, pastor, elder, or even small group leader to take these concepts to heart. In fact, many times some of the most important “leaders” of a community don’t have any official leadership position at all, an idea that fits perfectly with the “non-existent” leader of chapter 17.


Lead with righteousness.

Use power with great care.

People’s hearts are not won by force.

How do I know this?

This is the way of God.


A wise leader will lead by example.

She will lead quietly, and people will be quiet.

She will live frugally, and people will be content.

She will live a godly life, and people will be godly.

-Translator: Marshall Davis


The main point here is that good leadership hesitates to turn to the law as a first option. Now, I obviously don’t just mean “the law” in the very specific Biblical sense or even like calling a lawyer or the police; “law” here can represent any kind of coercive leadership tactics. While the case can be made that there are very specific times where heavy-handed, authoritarian leadership is necessary, it should be an exception to the rule. In line with this, Richard Rohr says, “Good leaders know that rapid recourse to the law might be seeking the will of God, but it might also be seeking to avoid the responsibility, the necessary self-doubt, the darkness, and the prayer required to live in faith, hope, and love.” (The Naked Now, 157)


The most effective leadership is from the bottom up, becoming what Jesus calls the “servant of all.” Relying on hierarchy and position alone to lead people fails to open up any middle ground. And it is in the middle ground where people are able to take ownership and find their meaning in the group. Leaders who assume they are “in charge” all the time, or that their competency or seniority or title somehow makes them more important, are not usually going to inspire people to live up to their full potential in the way that a Taoist - or Christ-like - leader does.


The short paragraph you just read (or skimmed) contains one of the most profound truths a leader could ever learn. If we can master the fundamental principle of servant leadership, then everything will change. The Tao te Ching talks about the ideal leader being one who puts himself or herself last, empowers the people to be the best they can be, uses authoritative action rarely (if ever), does not easily resort to “the law,” and views their leadership as solely for the good of the whole group. And as a Christian reading the Tao te Ching, I simply nod my head and say amen to all of it - and pray that I have the wisdom, insight, and courage to choose that path in my own leadership.


©2019 by Corey Farr.