The Tao of Leadership

By Greg Fisher

Last week I had the honour of being involved in a set of meetings in Beijing, which represented the inaugural meeting of the Hanwang Forum, of which I am a member.  There are many very supportive things I would say about this Forum but in this article I would like to focus on how this Forum came to be, which was due to the leadership of a Taoist master.  I want to relay my experiences here because we Westerners have a lot to learn from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which curiously has a great deal of overlap with Complexity theory.

I must emphasise up front that I am referring to a Taoist style of leadership, not Chinese.  For most of the past 60 years, China has been influenced by a centrally-controlled way of thinking, which is very much the antithesis of Taoist leadership.

Over-generalising slightly, the Western attitude to leadership is about the leader deciding and articulating the destination of a group, and developing a strategy for reaching that destination.  They articulate both the ends and the means, which are carried out by those being led.  Ideally, also, the leader declares the principles and values upon which the whole movement is based, which the followers are required to adhere to.  In my experience this tends to be followed by a lot of mutterings about the lack of leadership skills of the shepherd by the sheep.

The famous Yin and Yang of Taoism

The Hanwang Forum came about through the leadership of a Taoist master who in effect did exactly the opposite of this Western leadership model.  In a nutshell, what he did was to engage in dialogue with various people around the world, which led to the practical emergence of the Forum.  This Forum enables a group of people to co-construct the meaning of what looks more like a movement than a forum; to co-construct the values and principles upon which the movement is and will be based; and to co-construct the nature of the problems we face and to imagine solutions together.  The meetings I joined in Beijing were mostly about problems and solutions but it was clear to me that meaning, values and principles were discussed implicitly.  So the nature of the leadership was to create an enabling platform and, rather than articulate end-points, principles and values, the Taoist master had developed a Forum in which this was being done by its members.

Clearly, such an approach requires trust in the people involved because they are being empowered as well as enabled.  The over-generalised Western approach described above is a very low-trust approach and it is one in which trust and power is conferred only on the leader.

I should also mention that for the whole of the two days of meetings, the Taoist master stood in the background.  There was a two-minute slot when he had to take the microphone but, ironically, this was in service to a sub-group presenting its conclusions to the whole group.  I took that opportunity to mention to a number of people that he was the Taoist master largely responsible for the Forum.  Most of them had heard of him but weren’t aware of who he was.

Over the past 18 months in preparing for this inaugural meeting, I have witnessed other instructive parts of his leadership that I wish I could mention here in detail.  I should not say too much because to be effective some of it probably requires people to be unaware of what is being done (or not) and why.  But I will say that on two occasions I noted this Taoist master not do something.  On one of these occasions I was made aware that the non-action was a deliberate choice that had a specific reason.  I was told about this quiet decision not to do something on this occasion for a good reason, and it made me ponder how many other non-actions I hadn’t observed.  Importantly, the intent was not to be manipulative, it was a part of the whole enabling process.  Another very clever thing he did was to choose a Western counterpart who, frankly, has similar (humble) leadership skills and who has helped to cultivate the forum from the Western end.  He is a good enough friend of mine that I know he would be uncomfortable with me mentioning him by name.

As the world has become more complex, and as this complexity intensifies further (which is probably likely), we need more of this Taoist style of leadership.  The Western approach is really only useful in non-changing and relatively simple environments, which are now less prevalent.  If an environment were simple enough for one person to fully grasp, and that same person could choose an appropriate destination and route, then a Western leadership style might not be unreasonable.  But, as is now cliché to say, the world is now more interconnected and complex than ever, which renders the Western approach increasingly obsolete (aside: it now feels cliché to say it’s a cliché).

The Taoist leadership approach is conducive to crowd-sourcing analysis of some problem-space and the legitimate co-construction of meaning, values, etc., within a group of people.  This style is much more suited to the world in which we now live.  By contrast, the Western approach will be relatively uninformed because it does not seek the views of all stakeholders; and it would be illegitimate because the so-called strategy (and values) do not emerge from these same stakeholders.

I wish I could say, with hand on heart, that Complexity theory leads us to a view of leadership that is identical to what I saw before and during the meetings in Beijing.  I cannot.  It does get us miles away from the traditional (and over-generalised, I know) model of Western leadership described above to something much more like what I witnessed.  But the key difference is that Complexity theory would, in my interpretation, give us impersonal recommendations about servant / host / enabling leadership.  What I saw before and in Beijing was a whole personality manifesting itself in many ways, including in the form of leadership, and communicating on multiple levels, including personal and intellectual.  It was very natural, very humble, and born of a very deep and mature philosophy from which we have a lot to learn.


6 Responses to “The Tao of Leadership”

  1. The ‘Taoist’ leadership you describe has a strong resonance with Robert Greenleaf’s model of ‘servant leadership’. And this he says he gleaned from Herman Hesse’s Nobel Prize winning book ‘A Journey to the East’ in which such humble yet supremely effective leadership is brilliantly described. Interestingly Greenleaf was confronted by a Catholic nun who claimed that the approach he advocated was what Catholic Social Teaching was all about anyway – and why did he not acknowledge that. Greenleaf apparently corrected her that he did not get the message either from the church or from the Bible but from the marvelous narrative of Hesse. The leader as story-teller?

    • Hi Greg, Excellent article here, very thought-provoking. It seems to me that metaphors of leader as servant (or my own building on that, leader as host (paper at can give impersonal versions of this, or personal ones. You seem to have found a very skilled and embodied leader here – great skill alongside great thinking!

    • Pawan says:

      Another quote from Lao Tzu, true wisdom “Be cruafel what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success. Always be on the lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success. Always be on the lookout for ways to nurture your dream.”— Lao TzuVN:F [1.9.11_1134](from 0 votes)

  2. Matthew Mezey says:

    Hi Greg,

    I was going to mention ‘Servant Leadership’, but I see Claudius has beaten me to it 😉

    I would also mention the ‘Developmental Action Inquiry’ approach to leadership – developed by Prof Bill Torbert, and partly inspired by the ‘Fourth Way’ school of the spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff, with a strong focus on presence and awareness.

    I wonder whether those approaches to leadership that draw on the ‘U Process’ of creativity/innovation might also be relevant here…?

    I do hope you’ll continue to search for leadership styles that resonate with ideas of complexity/emergence.

    The rare, late stages of leadership maturity that Torbert’s research has found are epitomised by an ability to be with the flux of what is, rather than to judge it, manipulate it etc. This late stage sounds very Taoist to me.

    Later stages of leadership maturity are also far better at sitting with ambiguity – even seeking to create it (rather than merely enduring it, or rejecting it – as leaders as earlier stages do).

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  3. Chris Davies says:

    Insightful post Greg. I agree that the sooner we move beyond our Platonic approach to leadership – reliant on Philosopher Kings who, I would argue, never really knew all the answers – the better.

    I’ve been reflecting recently on the challenge that this presents in politics. How do you create a political platform based on emergent behaviours, when the electorate is used to leaders who claim to offer clear solutions to contemporary problems. This seems a particularly acute challenge at a time like this when economic chaos makes certainty seem attractive.

    In that context, I wonder whether Ed Miliband hasn’t played a blinder putting Jon Cruddas in charge of the Labour policy review, given some of the ideas he was expressing recently – assuming, that is, that Labour then resists the urge to start going back to technocratic solutions.

  4. Arthur Battram says:

    Brilliant piece, Greg. Raises lots of thoughts.

    I’ll spare you most of them, just to say – oh yes – “Westerners have a lot to learn from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which curiously has a great deal of overlap with Complexity theory.”

    I also agree with Mark, and would go on to claim that my own PossibilitySpace sessions also share some common principles: in particular the intention to ‘seek the views of all stakeholders’; and be legitimate ‘because the strategy (and values)’ do ’emerge from these same stakeholders’.

    You say: “on two occasions I noted this Taoist master not do something” – when I talk about my approach, I stress nonaction – it’s mainly about things like unlearning how to chair a meeting and learning to not do stuff.

    Ditto Claudius on Greenleaf and Matthew’ on Torbert. Your mysterious ‘him’ is obviously high up on Torbert’s developmental scale – certainly ‘strategist’ possibly’ magician’ or ‘ironist’.

    As the world has become more complex…(my aside: it already felt like a cliché when I said it in 1998 – it was the starting point for my book ‘Navigating Complexity’.

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