The First Rule of Good Governing

When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing; we did it all by ourselves!’

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In the past, when I have gotten to this chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I have devoted a great deal of time to looking at the differences between a leader who is loved vs. a leader who is feared, or worse despised. Having taken up so much of the space I intended to use, I haven’t really been able to devote much of my blog post to what I think is much more important, and what I think Lao Tzu was much more interested in, and that is how the Master governs.

Today, I would like to rectify that failure on my part.

Let’s start by first remembering what Lao Tzu means when he refers to the Master. The Master is anyone who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. Or, put another way, in perfect harmony with the Tao. The Master isn’t swayed by the way things seem to be. The Master isn’t attracted to the illusion at all; but sees right past it, to the reality that is beyond the veil of how things seem to be.

So, how does someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao govern? This is a very important question for Lao Tzu, because it gives us Lao Tzu’s first rule of good governing.

He says that when the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Okay, Lao Tzu, you have my attention. Tell me more.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing, we did it all by ourselves!”

Oh, to have such a one to lead. Some people think that anarchists, like myself, would not be in favor of there being any leaders. Shouldn’t anarchists be opposed to all governments?

Perhaps, some anarchists seem to want no government at all. That whole meme “No Masters, No Rulers.” does seem to suggest that anarchists are quite an unruly bunch.

But remember that we don’t want to be swayed by how things seem to be. What we are wanting is to be in perfect harmony with the way things really are.

That is why I wanted to be careful to define Lao Tzu’s term, Master, right from the start. He is not envisioning some master/slave relationship. The people are not slaves to the Master. No, he trusts them completely. And, because he trusts the people, the people become trustworthy.

The Master doesn’t entice the people with flowery speech intended to deceive them with the illusion of power and authority over them. No, he doesn’t talk at all. He merely acts. And the people are hardly aware that he even exists. He hasn’t made some show of himself. He doesn’t act with great pomp and circumstance. You wouldn’t spot him at photo ops. He wouldn’t be found making the rounds of late-night talk shows.

The people are hardly aware that he even exists. He merely acts. Trusting the people to do for themselves what it is in their nature to do. And so, when his work is done the people will say they did it all by themselves. And what else would they say? For that is exactly what has happened.

Are good leaders a necessary thing? Certainly! Anyone telling you differently is simply mistaken. Good leaders will always be a necessary thing. Some people are natural leaders. Some people are naturally followers. One is not better than the other. They just have different functions in the way things are.

So leaders, there will always be. Because they are necessary. But sadly, they are not always good.

If you aspire to govern, if you aspire to be a leader, here is Lao Tzu’s first rule of good governing. It doesn’t matter if you are loved, or feared, or despised; if you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

You do it. You. I know I often talk about the illusion of power. And that is certainly an important topic of discussion. But today I am talking about real power. The power wielded by a leader. For good or ill. Every leader has the power to make the people untrustworthy; just as surely as they have the power to make them trustworthy.

And the first rule of good governing, of being a good leader, is to trust the people. We need leaders that are not swayed by the illusion of power. That give no ground to the way things seem to be. We need leaders in perfect harmony with the way things are. We need leaders who recognize their real power; and trust the people.

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