Daodejing Chapter 17 breakdown: leadership through effortless action

Richard Brown
2 min readDec 21, 2023


Chapter 17 of the Daodejing calls for an understated form of leadership based on the practice of wuwei, or effortless action, that trusts the wisdom and abilities of the people and minimizes interference in their lives. The model ruler acts like an invisible hand, serving as a facilitator rather than a despot to create the right environment for the people to thrive in without applying unnecessary force or compulsion.

Section 1
The best ruler is
Unknown to his people.
The next best is
Loved and praised.
The next is feared.
The worst is despised.

The chapter begins by listing a descending order of leadership types. The best kind of ruler is one who governs in such a subtle way that his presence is barely felt. He guides without imposing, allowing the people to live free from needless interference in their lives.

After the “unknown” or invisible ruler at the top, comes one who is loved and praised by the people for his wisdom and virtue. A ruler who is feared by the population is ranked next, followed by a brutal tyrant who is universally reviled.

Section 2
If there is a lack of trust above,
There is a lack of trust below.

Effective leadership is based mutual respect and trust between the ruler and ruled. The absence of trust leads to a breakdown in the relationship between a ruler and his people, causing dissatisfaction, instability, and ultimately despotism and rebellion.

Section 3
Remain distant,
Choose words carefully.
Whatever goal is accomplished,
Whatever job is done,
The people all say,
We did it ourselves.

Instead of making rash promises that he has no hope of fulfilling, the model ruler speaks only when necessary and chooses his words very carefully so that they are not open to misinterpretation. He empowers the people to such an extent that they feel a sense of ownership and pride in their accomplishments. His invisible leadership fosters a strong, self-reliant society where his influence is subtle yet profound.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.