Daodejing Chapter 78 breakdown: like water

Richard Brown
3 min readNov 15, 2023

Chapter 78 of the Daodejing illustrates the strength of softness and gentleness through the analogy of water overcoming the hardest and strongest substances. The passage goes on to highlight the paradox that even though this is a universally accepted principle, only a handful of individuals apply it to the way they lead their lives. This is particularly perplexing given that the best way to become an effective leader is to model the qualities of water by remaining humble, fluid, and selfless, and shouldering the heavy burdens of the role with no thought of personal gain.

Section 1
Nothing in all-under-heaven
Is softer and gentler than water.
Yet it overcomes
The hard and strong.
Nothing can replace it.

Water is the exemplar of the Dao and is frequently used in Daoist texts as a metaphor for the ideal way of being. While it is soft, flexible, and yielding, water possesses an undeniable strength that can erode mountains, carve valleys, and shape landscapes. By being as flexible and persistent as water, you can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Section 2
The gentle overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
All-under-heaven
Knows this truth,
Yet no one applies it.

It is one thing to understand a principle, but quite another to live by it. Even if a truth is universally acknowledged, it does not guarantee that everyone will accept or put it into practice — perhaps because it conflicts with prevailing values or it requires patience and a long-term perspective.

Effective leadership means accepting reality, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to you, and acting on it accordingly.

Section 3
This is why the sage says:
Whoever is willing to
Accept the filth of the state,
Will be lord of the altar
Of earth and grain.
Whoever is willing to
Accept the misfortune of the state,
Will be king of all-under-heaven.

Effective leadership also requires a willingness to shoulder the burdens and challenges of the role even if you were not responsible for causing them. You are there to serve others rather than seeking power for its own sake and create an environment that will enable everyone in your organization to grow.

Section 4
Truths like these
Sound paradoxical.

Reality is always murkier and messier than you want or expect it to be. That means you need to dig deeper under the surface to find out the facts of a situation and understand the contradictions that drive it.

True leadership does not come from what we typically perceive as strength, but from the ability to yield, adapt, and embrace ever changing dynamics while adhering to fundamental truths.

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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.