THE wisdom of a leader is the ability to make good decisions and take wise actions. This concept of wisdom provides a new perspective in today’s leadership study and development.

It is insufficient for a leader to possess intelligence if he lacks wisdom. In Chinese literature, a leader is likened to a “ship” and the follower, to “water”.

 “The lord is the boat; his subjects the water. It is the water that sustains the boat, and it is the water that capsizes the boat.” (Book 9.4 of Xunzi, 313-238 BC)

Various Chinese leaders of old have taught leadership wisdom, especially the philosophical thoughts put forward by Confucius and Mencius on the Principle of Humanism and Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi on the Principle of Nature.

Although these philosophers lived in ancient times, their thoughts are not ancient to us. The Analects by Confucius was widely read in classical times and continues to be popular in contemporary times both in the East and the West.

Confucianism advocates one to first cultivate his own character — to be upright, trustworthy, righteous, benevolent, magnanimous and courteous, just to name a few.

Confucius emphasised the cultivation of the individual, and from cultivating oneself to regulating one’s family, then to governing the country and establishing peace throughout the world at large.

Confucius viewed education as the best way to change the individual and reform society.

The works of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, who are said to have lived about 2,400 to 2,500 years ago, have a paradoxical quality and reflect an attitude towards life that many people will still find appealing. In fact, the Dao De Jing by Lao Zi is one of the most translated books in contemporary times.

Both Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi advocate a lifestyle with few desires. Its aim: be yourself, be simple and natural. The philosophers held that in a gracious and perfect society, people do not need to be circumscribed by unnecessary social norms and values.

If fame and authority are not highly praised in a society, then there will be no disgraceful people. Let plainness manifest, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness and have few desires — this is the best way a society should function, according to Lao Zi.

From the works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, we can draw eight key qualities of a wise leader:

1. He believes in upholding ethics: He pays special attention to his moral character and the moral conduct of his followers. He diffuses and inculcates the right conduct or habits among his followers in the belief that while people’s natures are alike, their habits separate them.

2. He believes in upholding benevolence and humanism: He exercises the highest level of humanism and believes in people and relationships — respect others and others will respect you more. 

To Confucius, a man will only be called a man if he treats all men equally as men. As the Chinese saying goes, “A noble leader would put the interest of others first and his own interest last.”

3. He values the Principle of Moderation: He exercises emotional intelligence (EQ) in handling issues, events and people. The Confucian leader always balances his words with his actions. In fact, the Confucian leader will act first before he preaches.

4. He emphasises continuous learning: He commits himself to being a life-long learner and is ready to transform himself and others. Confucian leaders emphasise that everyone should be proactive about learning. The attitude of learning is to listen and observe first; if you still cannot understand, then learn from others by asking questions.

5. He embraces everything: He has the ability to embrace totality, including the good and the bad, and the right and the wrong. The key principle is to embrace other people’s languages, ethnicity, culture, religions, and ideologies — to create a diversified workforce — which leads to synergy and creativity.

6. He thinks paradoxically: He knows that everything co-exists in opposites. He sees possibility within the impossible; and sees impossibility within the possible. During a crisis, he sees opportunity; and during good times, he sees danger.

A wise leader always reminds oneself of the opposite (that is, enhance your adversity quotient) and holds that the stronger one pushes, the stronger the system will push back.

7. He uses fluidity and flexibility as a source of strength:  He believes that the best style is “no style” and yet every stroke is immensely powerful.

In Chapter 13 of Zhuang Zi’s book, it states that nothing is as calm as water. Calm water characteristically is like a mirror — it naturally reflects all images. To Zhuang Zi, the sage’s heart, when perfectly calm will reflect emptiness, peace, contentment, apathy, silence, comprehensive view, and non-intervention. 

These are the roots of all good outcomes. When the water in a lake is still and clear, it naturally reflects all images. This is the characteristic of water — reflective and transparent. 

8. He interferes the least: He understands the concept of “non-action”  — that is, without unnecessary interference — and subscribes to invisible leadership. Like the transparency of water, a truly natural leader is almost invisible. Natural events follow their own course and allow excellence to be a natural outcome.