Leadership Wisdom from the Tao Te Ching: The more rigid we are in life, the less control we have. By being softer and more flexible, we can accomplish more.

Some claim that the Tao Te Ching is one of the wisest books ever written. There are many translations and interpretations of this classic Chinese text, and while its authorship and composition date are still debated, it is believed to have been written by Lao-tzu in the 5th century BC.

The 81 verses of the Tao hold profound messages that are relevant in today’s practice of leadership; in how we lead ourselves, how we lead others and how we guide organizations into the future.

This post is part 1 of 2 and focuses on Verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching: The importance of being flexible.

Choosing to be flexible

Being flexible means that we can choose to change our minds. What we believed on Monday may no longer stand true on Wednesday, because on Tuesday we learned something new about the situation that prompted us to look at it differently. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. While good leaders are consistent in their words and actions, they recognize the importance of being flexible and open minded.

In Verse 76 of the Tao, Lao-tsu states that “all things are supple and pliable in life and dry and brittle in death.” Like trees whose branches bend and flex in heavy winds instead of breaking off in rigidity, we too can choose to be flexible in our leadership practice.

Flexibility – a Key Leadership Competency

Today’s constantly changing workplaces depend on leaders who can anticipate change, adapt quickly to new circumstances and coach others to be flexible. Flexible leaders are receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things. They embrace change and are open to the possibility that others may have a better idea or solution to a problem. Being flexible also means to be comfortable with ambiguity and managing in a diverse work environment.

Core Values and Flexibility

Lao-tzu talks about being flexible like a tree. Verse 76 refers to “a place that is firm and strong below”. Just as the trees have deep roots to anchor them, good leaders have strong core values that keep them grounded in what truly matters to them.

Core values are our roots, they build the foundation from where we can be open and expand our horizon. Our values provide direction while we are considering other options and viewpoints. They are “the place that is firm and strong”, where we can check back to make sure our decisions are authentic and based on our core beliefs.

How to increase your Flexibility Competence in the 3 Levels of Leadership:

  1. Flexibility in Leading Yourself

To be flexible and open minded you need to have a strong sense of who you are together with a willingness to continually grow and evolve.


You gain self-awareness through the practice of introspection. Through analyzing your thoughts and behaviours, you learn about what truly matters to you and how it impacts your decision-making. Introspection helps you recognize negative patterns in your behaviour that did not serve you well in the past.

You can then consider choosing different approaches moving forward. Introspection also helps you see the big picture and recognize the things over which you have no control. This allows you to detach and let go of worrying. A great tool for self-reflection is journaling, a practice that many leaders use on a regular basis.

Another way to increase self-awareness is by seeking feedback from others. No matter how self-aware you are, you may have some traits that you are unable to see in yourself. You can start addressing these blind spots through getting input from a trusted colleague, mentor or family member.

Personality testing can provide another level of insight into your traits and characteristics. Discover your strengths and the description of your personality type based on the Jung Typology Test™ Free Personality Test.

  1. Flexibility in Leading Others

Situational Leadership

Do you have the ability and willingness to adapt your leadership style based on the needs and skill levels of your employees? This means constantly analyzing situations and adopting the most effective leadership style required at that time.

Situational Leadership Theory, as defined by Hersey and Blanchard, ranks among the most recognized leadership models in today’s business world. To learn more, read The New One Minute Manager by Blanchard and Johnson, or have a look at this Situational Leadership overview Model.

  1. Flexibility in Leading Organizations

Leadership, organizational flexibility and innovation are key focus points for today’s organizations. The opposite of flexibility is rigidity. By their very nature, company structures and organizational charts are often rigid and unyielding.

Ask yourself: how flexible and agile are your organizational systems to respond to changing market and employee needs? Implement management processes that enable the organization to drive change with creativity and flexibility. The need for organizational flexibility requires leaders with strategic foresight.  Use scenario planning to think about the future and make flexible, long-term plans to meet the needs of a continually evolving market place.

The life affirming practice of being flexible (in mind and body) is an ongoing process that helps us live in balance and carries us through difficult times without breaking.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it. – Lao-tzu