All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Kind of Leader No One Can Compete With
Lao Tzu keeps returning to the need for humility in governing. Why? Because the art of governing, in harmony with the Tao, requires it. The practice of humility is being in harmony with the Tao. And, in today’s chapter, once again, Lao Tzu is using the now familiar metaphor of the sea, to show the source of its power is its humility.
In an earlier chapter he said, “When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea: all streams run downward into it.” Today, he reverses the order of the wording: “All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are.”
But, he isn’t talking about countries now. He is talking about individual leaders. “If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.”
Here, we have the yin and yang relationship between below and above, and following and being ahead. A wise and virtuous leader can be above the people, without anyone feeling oppressed. They can go ahead of the people, without anyone feeling manipulated.
I don’t need to point out how very different it would be for us to have leaders who weren’t oppressing and manipulating us. It is so unlike anything we have ever had before. And, it should go without saying, the whole world would be grateful for the kind of leaders Lao Tzu is describing.
No one can compete with this kind of leader, because this kind of leader competes with no one.