"Those who show no trust
will not be trusted."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 17
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The supreme rulers are hardly known by their subjects.
The lesser are loved and praised.
The even lesser are feared.
The least are despised.
Those who show no trust will not be trusted.
Those who are quiet value the words.
When their task is completed, people will say:
We did it ourselves.
History has taught us that noisy rulers usually ravage
the country. Still, we tend to fall for them when they rise.
We should always look for modesty in our leaders, and
moderation in their use of power. Those who seek triumph are
indifferent to what they need to trample on in order to
Nowadays, we have a chance to elect our leaders
by voting. We don't always have excellent candidates to
choose between, but we are still much better off than those
countless past generations stuck with kings whose only merit
was that they were sons of kings. Inheriting power rarely
breeds the proper respect for it.
Lao Tzu gives a clear order of leadership qualities.
The same ladder can be used as an indicator of how those
leaders safeguard their position.
The most prominent leaders are satisfied to do
their work without receiving any praise for it. They don't
even care if they are known, or if they will be remembered
after their time in office.
The leaders with slightly less prominence make
sure that they are loved and appreciated. That's far less
noble, but it's still a kind of guarantee that they will do their
best to please the people they rule, and protect the land they
control. Only benevolence inspires love, and only a job
well done wins praise.
Much worse are the leaders who guard their power
by threats and force, scaring people into submission.
Unfortunately, this is not that difficult, history shows us. So,
such leaders are not rare, and they tend to remain in power for
far too long. Fear, as Lao Tzu has already explained above,
So, it's easy to find and to stimulate. Those who want
to indulge in power tend to prefer it, because it makes
their power evident as well as impressive. But such power is
fragile, since those ruled by it only wish for it to end.
Feared leaders are still not the worst, Lao Tzu tells
us. Such leaders can still be admired, and people are
excused for not revolting.
The worst ones are despised, having no merit in the
eyes of their people. This is worse than fear, because it's
shameful – for the leader, and even more so for those he
leads, since they allow themselves to be ruled by someone
they cannot respect. It's a reign of disgrace, which risks
leading even the most splendid country into decay.
What Lao Tzu says about rulers is true also for all kinds
of leaders further down in the hierarchy. A boss doesn't
have to be big to be bad – or good. As soon as someone has
the least bit of power over other people, no matter how
few they are, the above applies.
Competent rulers are trusted, and trust that they
receive this trust. Otherwise they feel the need to ascertain
their power by other means. But trust is such that it neither
grows nor remains if it's not mutual. The one who shows trust
expects to get it in return, so those who want it must also
If a trusted leader shows no trust in the people he
leads, then soon enough their trust in him will vanish. Rightly
so. Someone who expects the worst from others is likely to
accept it in himself. He may even use his suspicions to
justify his own malice, calling it precaution or a preemptive
strike. Distrust poisons society much quicker than blind faith
Words should be used with the same moderation
as power. A leader arguing his case abundantly is probably
trying to cover its weakness. Rhetoric can be as fine as
poetry, but it says very little about the issue at hand. Words are
not deeds, so words about deeds give no guarantee as to
how they will turn out. This is evident in modern politics,
where passionate speeches are a dime a dozen, but still most
problems wait for their solutions.
We would say that action speaks louder than words,
but Lao Tzu was no friend of noise. He would rather have
the action so discreet that it passed unnoticed, and therefore
no words at all were needed.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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