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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 57, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is the beginning in a series of chapters on the art of governing. For Lao Tzu, training would-be leaders in the way of the Tao was just as important, if not more so, as teaching everybody else. Why? Because the so-called powerful men and women among us, have the greatest capacity for running things counter to the Tao. Even, and especially, when they have the best of intentions; their will to power, their desire to be in control, is a constant temptation, a corrupting influence, that ultimately achieves the opposite of the good they may intend. The Tao, which is the way things are, doesn’t work at things from the top-down. It works from the bottom-up, from within each individual expression of the Tao, and outward from there. Top-down outward force is the antithesis to the Tao. As individual expressions of the Tao we need to practice doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing to go along with the flow of the Tao. This is true of all of us. But it is especially true for those with the most power to wreck the lives of every being on the planet. Lao Tzu’s advice to those who want to govern us has always been consistent. Trust the people and leave them alone. Don’t try to control. Don’t use force. Doing nothing is always preferable to interfering with nature. If you didn’t interfere, the world would govern itself.
This is why he begins today’s chapter with the importance of learning to follow the Tao. If you want to be a great leader, you must do this. Not, you should. This isn’t something just to be taken under advisement. You must learn to follow the Tao. If you don’t do this, you won’t be a great leader. You may be a despot. But you will never be a great leader. Here, I want to clear up any confusion. There is a world of difference between a leader and a ruler. A ruler may be able to impose their will on people. If they are powerful enough, they may accomplish all sorts of things. But a true leader doesn’t rule. They know how to follow, first. They don’t have to apply force. They don’t have any desire to be in control. They lead by being an example, not by terror. So, the very first thing that any would-be leader must learn is how to follow the Tao.
And that means, stop trying to control. Know that you can’t control things, first. It never ceases to amaze me, the capacity with which some people in high places just don’t get this. They have actually convinced themselves that they have the power to control people and circumstances. But the Universe is forever out of their control. There are natural laws at work here. You can’t run counter to those laws and expect to succeed. When you learn to follow the Tao, you will find how yin and yang complement each other, working together to balance things out. Let that happen without interfering. Don’t try to control outcomes.
It also means that they need to let go of fixed plans and concepts. We will discuss some of these fixed plans and concepts, shortly. There are myriad ways that the powers that be have come up with to try and control things. But they need to let go of them all. The world will govern itself, if only they will cease and desist their efforts to try and control things. Now some would-be leaders are no doubt thinking to themselves, “But what is left for us to do? You are just one of those anarchists that don’t want to be governed.” Well, you are almost right. I am one of those anarchists that don’t want to be ruled. But, if your idea of governing is being an example for how to follow the Tao, I am cool with that.
Be a leader, not a ruler! Learn how to follow the Tao; and then, be an example to all people of how to do that. That is the definition of a great leader. Your will to power, your desire to be in control, and all your fixed plans and concepts need to go.
What our rulers fail to reckon with, when it comes to the way things are, the natural laws that “govern” our Universe, is that the more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. Their attempts at controlling us, they will say all they want is virtuous people, have the opposite effect. They are trying to regulate people’s behavior from the outside. But virtue is an inner thing. You want virtuous people? Let the Tao work on the inside of them. I am just going to say this, even though some people are going to scoff at it. The less prohibitions you have, the more virtuous people will be. But that statement is anathema to anyone who wants to be in control.
Our rulers absolutely love to amass more and more weapons. Their objective, they will insist, is to make us all secure in our lives and our property. But here is the “shocking” truth: That isn’t how to follow the Tao. The more weapons they have, the less secure people will be. “But why? Why don’t people trust us to take care of them?” It is because people aren’t nearly as stupid as you think we are. The greatest threat to our security has always been people in power who said they had our best intentions at heart. Those weapons you have, don’t make us secure. They make us vulnerable. Incidentally, we know that is exactly what you want. Just another way you try to control us.
And, of course, our rulers “love” us so very much that they offer us more and more subsidies. The end result is that people become less and less self-reliant. Once again, you can say all you want about how you are only trying to help. The truth is the truth. You aren’t helping. You are hurting. And if it isn’t a deliberate move on your part to try and control us, then you are even more stupid than I imagined.
I said, earlier, that we would talk more about letting go of fixed plans and concepts; and here is where we do. Lao Tzu invokes the Master to show us the way to let go, and why.
The Master says: I let go of the law, and people become honest. The law is one of the fixed plans and concepts Lao Tzu is talking about. Is Lao Tzu advocating lawlessness? See how you are? Already stirring up fear and anxiety with your imagined outcomes.
That is your first line of attack. Get people scared, very, very scared. Then, they will let you do anything. But I am not buying it. Lao Tzu already covered this. It isn’t advocating lawlessness to recognize that all the external force that you apply on others, doesn’t achieve the desired results. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. Let go of the law and people become honest. “How is that even possible?” You can’t even imagine what the Tao is capable of, if we will only let it be.
The Master says: I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I can’t hardly listen to a discussion of economics by people in high places anymore. Their fixed plans and concepts are wreaking havoc on our world. That has been the case for generations. But it does seem like it has really escalated in the last few years. The more they try to control things from the top-down, the worst things are going to be. Will they ever learn? That would depend on them caring about enriching the lives of anyone besides the hands that feed them. If they learned to follow the Tao they wouldn’t be interfering in the economy. They really need to let go of it. Everyone, not just an elect few, would prosper.
The Master says: I let go of religion, and people become serene. Serenity is supposed to be the aim of every religion. Right? Well, somewhere along the way, we screwed up. But this isn’t about individuals no longer being free to practice their religion, or not. This is about religion being imposed from the top-down. Trying to legislate morality would be included here. Forcing people to do things that run counter to their own conscience is another thing. Kim Davis, I am not talking about you. No one is forcing you to approve of gay marriage. If you don’t want to do your job, then quit. But, if someone owns a bakery, and they don’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, they shouldn’t be forced to. Personally, I would be delighted at the prospect that my business could increase. But it is your business, turn away all the business you want. Would-be leaders, leave it alone. Let it go.
If only would-be leaders would learn to follow the Tao. I am thinking, here, of the desire for the common good, that so many would-be leaders insist is their reason for being. The Master says: I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass. That is how the Universe operates. It is the way things are. Which is why it is so very important that those who want to govern us learn to follow the Tao.