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Book Review: The Tao of Leadership by John Heider

· book review,Leadership,Values

I have come across a lot of technical books about leadership – the mechanics of managing teams, the skills needed, the theories behind human behaviour. They are all valuable and quite intellectual. However, this book tackles leadership in a very different way, which makes it stand out from the crowd.

John Heider explains in the beginning of the book that this is merely an adaptation of a very famous Chinese text: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. The original text is not specific to leadership, but is instead a collection of wise words about how one should approach life. Heider has simply translated, collated and analysed the chapters with leadership in mind.

The Tao of Leadership By John Heider, adapted from Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

It is actually a very difficult book to explain or review as it’s content is quite abstract. The book is easily read cover to cover in an hour but the content will take many readings to be fully digested and applied. I found that after reading it I had ‘learned’ nothing new but instead felt different about some of my attitudes and approaches. This book felt like more of a spiritual or moral commentary than a technical one, and for that reason it is very refreshing. It is common to be instructed on the hows of leadership without necessarily thinking about the whys or the inner process in detail. If more leaders devoted time to their values, approaches and moral motivations then the field of ‘management’ and leadership would look very different.

Key Themes

The book is split up into page long chapters that reflect the original themes of the Tao Te Ching. This makes it incredibly easy to dip into a few pages and get reflective. For this reason it would be a great resource to use with work teams or even family groups for an interesting discussion.

Many of the themes overlap and are repeated in different contexts as more ideas are added. This builds up a nice holistic picture of the way leadership spreads through all areas of ones life and behaviours – not just the work context.

Many of the themes relate to nature and natural occurrences, interpersonal relationships and inner thought processes. This is all with the goal of reminding the reader that listening to the things around us reveals the true way of things and that we should learn from Tao – the way things are.

Favourite Points

As I said before it is quite difficult to explain the content of a book that is more about the way it makes you feel and reflect; everyone’s reflections will differ greatly. But I would like to share a few points that I found interesting.

Leadership is about moderation of opposites and polarities. Too much of anything reveals its opposite.


There is a lot of talk about polarities and balance. The idea that too much of anything will produce its opposite:

“Striving to be beautiful makes a person ugly, and trying too hard to be kind is a form of selfishness.”

There are number of other polarities mentioned in the book that really focus on the idea of balanced behaviour. Living in moderation is the best way not to be tied down or off-putting.

The Receptive Leader

In line with these polarities, Lao Tzu compares the leader to a receptacle or the ocean. The leader’s best quality is his ability to follow the needs of the group. Receiving their energy in order to help them transform. When the ocean receives the rushing river it facilitates it becoming something new without interrupting its natural process.

This really resonates with our own beliefs in servant leadership – that a leader is not there to have their own agenda but is actually there to help an individual or group reach its own conclusions. The leader just supports along the way according to what is needed.

Leadership is about being receptive and facilitating the needs of the group.


This is definitely one worth reading when you have time to really get into the right headspace. Although it is short enough to read on the bus / tube or pick up for 5 minutes on a coffee break, it may be better used as food for thought during a more meditative environment. And don’t expect to ‘learn’ anything concrete, but instead to find yourself thinking and feeling about what leadership means.

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