Nothing in all-under-heaven
Is softer and gentler than water.
Yet it overcomes
The hard and strong.
Nothing can replace it.
The gentle overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
Knows this truth,
Yet no one applies it.
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.
Truths like these
Like water, an effective leader assumes the lowest position, quietly overcoming even the toughest obstacles through patience and persistence. By tackling the “filth” and “misfortune” of the organization, the leader gains authority and respect without having to resort to table-thumping theatrics. No task is too difficult or too thankless for the leader to take on.
Like water, an effective leader freshens the soil of the organization and enables its people to grow. By permeating the darkest and most distant corners of the organization with clarity and calm, the leader makes sure everyone thrives.
Laozi uses the metaphor of water in the Daodejing to illustrate key Daoist principles such as humility, flexibility, gentleness, and the power of yielding. The image of water effectively communicates the Daoist ideal of effortless action (wuwei) and the natural flow of life’s events. The key qualities of water include:
Water flows effortlessly around every barrier, shunning heights while embracing the depths.
Water naturally conforms to the shapes it encounters, be it square or circular, vast or confined, filling valleys and coursing through rivers.
Water smooths and calms surfaces, extinguishes fire, nurtures plants and trees, and remains persistently gentle and humble. See also:
Daodejing Chapter 8: like water
This chapter compares the virtue of a good person to the qualities of water, emphasizing how water benefits all things without striving for conflict or contention.
Daodejing Chapter 28: an uncarved block of wood
In this chapter, the idea of retaining your feminine qualities, associated with water’s receptiveness and flexibility, is encouraged as a means to stay whole.