The path of the sage: effortless action and humble leadership in the Daodejing

Richard Brown
3 min readFeb 19, 2024

Unlike Confucius, Laozi does not provide any real-life examples of people who embodied his teachings in the Daodejing. Instead, he evokes the qualities of the great sages of antiquity to inspire you to follow the Dao. Whether these sages ever existed is, of course, open to question. But even if they are merely mythical figures, they provide a useful model for Laozi to explain how you should adopt his teachings and conduct your affairs.

Naturally, the practice of wuwei (無為), or effortless action, is central to Laozi’s descriptions of the sage. It enables the sage to act in a way that is in harmony with the natural flow of the universe, doing what is required without unnecessary effort, and allowing things to unfold in their own time.

Here are some examples of how the sage practices wuwei from the Daodejing:

Simplicity and Emptiness
The sage embraces simplicity and focuses on the essential, returning to the basic and natural state of being. By emptying his mind of artificial knowledge and unnecessary desires, he views the world with complete clarity and acts accordingly:

Learning requires
Increasing every day.
The Dao requires
Decreasing every day.
Decrease and decrease again,
Until you attain
Effortless action.
With effortless action
Nothing is left undone.

Daodejing Chapter 48: decrease and decrease again
Daodejing Chapter 48 breakdown: nothing is left undone

Humility and Adaptability
The sage is humble and adaptable, flowing with ever changing circumstances like water. Because he has no ego, he does not attempt to impose his will against the natural course of events or force his opinions on other people.

Higher power
Does not strive for power,
So it has power.
Lesser power
Does not let go of power,
So it has no power.
Higher power does not act,
So it leaves nothing undone.
Lesser power acts,
So it leaves things undone.

Daodejing Chapter 38: higher power
Daodejing Chapter 38 breakdown: the fruit of the Dao

By placing himself beneath others and serving the common good without seeking recognition or reward, the sage achieves the best results and is “perfectly fulfilled.”

The sage places himself at the back,
Yet ends up at the front.
He has no consideration for himself,
Yet stays safe and secure.
Because he is selfless,
The sage is perfectly fulfilled.

Daodejing Chapter 7: selfishness and selflessness
Daodejing Chapter 7 breakdown: heaven and earth

Non-Contention
Because he works for the common good, the sage does compete or contend with others and has no interest in receiving credit for his accomplishments. He does not consider any task beneath him, no matter how difficult or dirty it may be. His focus is on ensuring peace and harmony among everyone around him in accordance with the natural flow of the Dao.

The highest good is like water.
Water benefits the myriad things.
It does not contend.
It settles in places
That people disdain.
It is akin to the Dao.

Daodejing Chapter 8: like water
Daodejing Chapter 8 breakdown: akin to the Dao

Leadership by Example
The sage leads by example rather than imposing draconian rules and regulations on everyone around him. He guides others without interfering or second-guessing their every decision and action.

The sage says:
I practice effortless action,
And the people are transformed
Of their own accord.
I cherish stillness,
And the people do what is right
Of their own accord.
I do not interfere,
And the people prosper
Of their own accord.
I am free from desire,
And the people return
To the uncarved block
Of their own accord.

Daodejing Chapter 57: win over the world through non-interference
Daodejing Chapter 57 breakdown: non-interference

By stepping back and allowing everyone to find their own way, the sage achieves far more than could possibly be imagined. This is the true definition of effortless action!

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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.