Free Laozi's Leadership Philosophy: A Comparative Analysis Essay Sample



Some historians consider him as a legendary figure while others contend that he existed and was a reflection of the modern Confucius. Laozi is an ancient Chinese philosopher and the author of the Taoism religion where he is considered as a god. Most of Laozis teachings demonstrate his open-minded approach to issues and immense knowledge of the ordinary man and leadership. This paper will explain what the key teachings of Laozi on leadership were, and compare it with what other philosophers who came after him said the same. The other Chinese philosophers whose works will be considered include: Mozi, in "The Mozi", Shang Yang in 'Lord Shang', Zhuangzi in 'The Zhuangzi', Han Feizi in 'The Han Feizi' and Marcus Aurelius in 'Meditations'. The primary focus of the paper will be on Laozis five key tenets that exemplify a strong leader and whether the other philosophers agree with his views.

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Non-action by Leaders

Laozi claimed that, a perfect leader should permit his subjects to run their lives as they deem fit and should only be acknowledged as to being in existence rather than the interference of their of their activities. Thus in the book he claims leaders are considered lords of all waterways since they occupy a downward position and serves as the reservoir of all waters (Ch.66). A good rule, therefore, sets up a far and systematic mode of government whereas a weak leader depends on legislation that establishes sanctions and punishments. Citizens will, therefore, submit to the weak leader out of fear, and he runs a risk of rebellion when his citizens become fed up. According to him, therefore, good rulers must lead through non-action rather than action, and this has the effect of creating an environment where citizens will perform their obligations out of their will without coercion.

This claim is opposed by Shang Yang, who believes in the doctrine of legality. According to Yang, a good leader should adopt a system of penalties and rewards to his subjects. He contends that even a weak leader can become strong and rule effectively by virtue of good laws. Yang argues that legalism promotes a system of predictability that is essential for running the state.

Han Feizi also disagrees with this view and states that leaders should develop a reward and punishment system. He justified his view by claiming that human beings naturally choose safety and reward as opposed to danger and problems. With this in mind, the ruler should set up a system of positives and negatives to show what should be done and what is to be avoided.


Laozi had the belief that the soft and weak had the capacity to prevail over hard and strong. According to him, it is desirable for a ruler to conduct himself softly rather than in a severe manner. Despite the leader having the authority to enforce sanctions, the leader ought to use the authority to motivate his subjects to perform as required. This power must be used only up to particular limits failure to the subjects may be forced into rebellion. What Laozi is merely trying to perpetrate is that a leader should be accommodative of the opinions of the people he comes across. He should act in a soft manner and not persist in forcing other to accept his opinion.

This view is supported by Mohism through its proponent Mozi. His utilitarian ideas were influenced by occurrences such as droughts, famines, and other natural calamities. He upholds the view of universal love and peace that results from a leaders softness. A soft leader abhors war and consults his people before making major decisions about them sice his views are considered to be that of the state.

Marcus Aurelius a Roman philosopher who was an emperor in Rome for about 20 years also stressed the importance of this virtue to leaders. He postulated that kindness is invincible and stronger than any negative acts. According to him the greatest leaders should always set aside their egos and be empathetic to their subjects.


In explaining the importance of humility of leaders, Laozi used the river analogy and stated that The rivers and seas are considered the lords of all waterways, since they occupy the downward position and serves as a reservoir of all the waters. (Miano Ch.66). This trait simply means that humility is the essential element required to run an organization. In accordance with his sea and river analogy, he explained that the sea located at a lower position than the valleys and it is the point where all the waters of the rivers collect. For that reason, all waters and valleys are subjects to the sea that is at a lower location. Rulers should, hence, strive to be humble in their dealings with their subjects and servants so that they can agree to work for him. Servants can only agree to work with a leader who treats them with respect and modesty.

In addition, Laozi stated that leaders must put themselves in their subjects positions. This is because their relationship is that of interdependence whereby a common goal is shared rather than opposing ones. Citizens will only submit themselves to the will of the ruler if they believe that he has their interests at heart. Leaders should, therefore, be empathetic and sensitive to the needs of their subjects rather than rely on using authority to force them to act in a particular way.

Han Feizi is in support of this trait as necessary in leaders. Born into royalty, Feizi has immense leadership experience and thus has great insights as to what can make great leaders. Feizi stresses that good leaders should listen to all sides of the story before making decisions. He claims that if rulers listen to his gut feeling alone, he will not be able to between the stupid and intelligent. A humble leader however to him can inspire his subjects to move beyond their abilities.

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Laozi believes that sensory pleasures and emotions impede an individual from perceiving things in the correct way. Leaders should, therefore, strive to remain calm so as to make sound judgments. Any enterprise being headed by a leader has to go through phases of establishment, growth, stability and decay. In order for a leader to take an organization through the difficult times, especially decline, he must be able to demonstrate calmness. He thus argues that leaders will neither make wrong judgments nor hold biased views, but will remain open-minded to all ideas as long as he can remain psychologically calm.

He further propounds that a calm leader can carry the burden of his subjects and does not discriminate those who are inferior to him. In supporting this view he says:

The Tao of the universe is empty, the human mind must secure spontaneity, humbleness, and peace, and then, one can observe the cycle of changes in the spontaneous growth of all creations. The multitude of creations is varied and numerous, yet, the world returns to the one and common root. Such fulfillment is called normalcy...without which calamity results. (Miano Ch.16)

Accordingly, it is crucial for leaders especially those who control a lot of resources and wield more power to remain calm and not to be influenced by material pleasures.

Marcus Aurelius is in support of this view as he stresses that good leaders should avoid making quick judgments on the actions of other people. He argues that some things are means to certain ends, and a good leader should strive to know a lot of things in order to be able to make sober judgments.

On the contrary, Zhuangzi seems to contradict this view. In contradiction to this view, he suggests that leaders and human beings should align themselves with the happenings of the nature and rhythms of the natural world. This is a common feature throughout his teachings where instead of seeking for the enlightened leadership he argues that leaders should align themselves with the natural world.

Elimination of Desire

Laozi claims that risks can be avoided by the removal of desire and having a pure mind. He added that people should be not be driven by the allure of becoming famous and wealthy. He considered it foolish for leaders to seek success in leadership positions if they compromise their dignity. The motivating factor to leaders should be the enrichment and satisfaction of the inner self and not personal desire. Leaders should understand that they have differing capabilities and thus should not stretch themselves beyond their abilities. Having such an approach will enable leaders not be motivated by selfish desires to become powerful. In short Laozis argument is that leaders should pursue wealth and fame within their capabilities.

Han Feizi seems to be in support of Laozis idea. Feizi states that a good leader should have the desire to do the right thing. He argues that if a leader is dependent on the people to do him good, he might search the entire world and wont get even a ten people. If he, however, ensures that they cannot harm him in any way, he can unite an entire state. He is in essence advocating for doing the right irrespective of whether it pleases those around him.

Marcus Aurelius also advocates for this view by requiring leaders to have self-control. He writes that despite the fact that some traits are inherent in humans, a good leader must be in control of his emotions and ultimately his desires. He argues that being aware of ones capability and living according to it, helps a leader bring out the best from his subjects by not pushing them beyond their limits.


The above discussion has given a broad analysis of Laozis teaching on leadership. From the discussion, it can be concluded that most of the other philosophers agree with his teachings on how a leader should treat his subjects except in the theory of non-action. Mozi and Marcus Aurelius seem to be in agreement with the teaching that a leader should be soft. Han Feizi agrees with him through his teaching that a leader should be humble enough to listen even to the lowliest of his subjects. Calmness is also considered a strong leadership virtue by Laozi. Marcus Aurelius supports this view as he claims that a good leader should not be too quick to judge. Zhuangzi does not support this view and propounds that leaders should rule according to the state of things. Laozi claims that a strong leader should not be too desirous and greedy. Han Feizi and Marcus Aurelius are in support of this view and argue that great leaders have self-control. The theory of non-action by Laozi is the most unpopular among the philosophers with Shang Yang, who believed in the doctrine of legality and Han Feizi who advocated for leaders using the rewards and punishment system completely disregarding it.


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