The power of water as a model for effective leadership

Richard Brown
2 min readFeb 15, 2024

Water is a key symbol of the Dao, and exemplifies the qualities of humility, flexibility, and persistence that are closely associated with the practice of wuwei, or effortless action. Chapter 8 and Chapter 78 of the Daodejing provide the most instructive descriptions of how emulating the behaviour of water can make you a more effective leader.

Daodejing Chapter 8
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 compares water to the highest good, highlighting its ability to selflessly nourish and sustain all living things just as you should develop and nurture your team without any expectation of gratitude or reward in return.

With its tendency to occupy the lowest and foulest places, water embodies the modesty and humility you need to show in a leadership role. By demonstrating that no task is too difficult or too thankless for you to take on, you set the right example for everyone else to follow.

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Daodejing Chapter 78
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.

Daodejing Chapter 78 explores the paradox that the very softness and gentleness of water gives it an undeniable strength that can overcome even the hardest and strongest objects. By acting with the flexibility and persistence of water, you can surmount the toughest obstacles and meet the most daunting challenges.

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

The Daodejing teaches that leadership inspired by the qualities of water –
humility, adaptability, and persistence — can increase your effectiveness and enable you to navigate the toughest challenges with grace and strength. By embodying the fluid, yielding, yet unstoppable nature of water, you can guide your team with a gentle strength that engenders trust and confidence among everyone.

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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.