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.