Taoism and its Model of Traits of Successful Leaders


The Centre of Culture and Languages

China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong

Xuezhu Bai




Abstract: Through an analysis of the anomalies which exist in modern leadership studies, this paper argues that the current dilemma is a result of the positivism methodology which dominates the Western academic world. It argues that the holistic Taoism that is characterized by a dialectic thinking system should be utilized as a complimentary approach to Western scientific analysis to solve the current problems associated with leadership studies. Furthermore, on the basis of Taoism, this paper proposes a “Taoism-oriented Traits Model of Successful Leaders” that integrates the major existing leadership theories, but which satisfactorily explains the dynamics of an organization and the associated traits required for its leaders in the organizational cycle.


Keywords: Leadership, Leaders, Followers, Traits, Taoism, Yin-Yang, Five-Element Theory


I. The status quo of leadership studies and its major schools

The Twentieth century was an important era for leadership research, during which leadership studies became a scientific discipline accepted by scholars. Significant progress has been made in this field, and at least eight major schools have influenced leadership studies and practices in various ways during the past century. Key influences have been the:    Trait School of Leadership Behavioral School of Leadership Contingency School of Leadership Relational School of Leadership Skeptics of Leadership School Information-Processing School of Leadership, The New Leadership School (Neocharismatic/Transformational/Visionary)( Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003). The achievement of leadership scholars has laid a profound and solid foundation for leadership studies and practices in the new millennium.

Among all the leadership studies, the Traits School, originating at the beginning of the last century, is widely recognized as the very earliest endeavor to investigate leadership in a scientific way( Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003). This school, often labelled as “Great Man Studies”, argues that those great men that are superior over ordinary people have changed the direction of history (Bass, 1990) It assumes that some traits of the leaders, that is their stable personalities, are the ultimate factors that enable them to make great achievements. However, because the Traits School failed to provide a sound explanation for many issues associated with leadership, its conclusions on leadership have been under constant criticism and skeptical analysis.

In the 1950s, leadership scholars that were not satisfied with the outcome produced by the Traits School began to study behaviours of leaders and their styles of leadership. Their efforts gave rise to a new school which was labeled the “Behavioral School of Leadership” which attracted greater attention from both academics and practitioners in the following years. Nevertheless, as the Behavioral School produced many conflicting findings on leadership, the interests of leadership researchers were rapidly transferred to the studies of leadership contexts.    In the 1960s, they formed a new school‒the “Contingency School of Leadership”. As with the Behavioral School, the Contingency School also brought about a great number of conflicting findings, which eventually gave birth to the “Skeptics School” of leadership that presented the concept of substitutes-for-leadership (Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003). The Skeptics assumed that without    so-called leadership, an organization should be able to soundly operate on the basis of capabilities of its members, a rational institutional mechanism and procedures or other factors.

In the meanwhile, other scholars developed the “Transactional Theory of Leaders and Followers” based on the so-called ‘Vertical Dyad Liaison Theory, depicting the relationship of exchanges between leaders and followers (Lowe & Gardner, 2000).

Leadership studies then went through a series of crises in the 1970s and 1980s, and leadership scholars at that time seemed to lose their directions. The crises at the time included criticism on the validity and reliability of leadership findings, measurement questionnaires and other research methods. All the crises reinforced the popularity of Skeptics School of leadership studies. Nevertheless, at the time when traditional leadership studies fell into crises Lord, Foti, and De Vader made a new breakthrough in leadership studies from the perspective of psychology. They developed “Information Processing Theory”, focusing on how the leaders fit in their traits with the expectations of their followers (Lowe, & Gardner, 2000). Soon after this, Bass and their associates (Avolio, Waldman, & Yammarino, 1990; Bass, 1998; Bass & Avolio, 1994) developed theories of “Visionary Leaders” and “Charismatic Leaders” (Bennis, 1959; Conger & Kanungo, 1988; Sashkin, 1988), giving rise to a new wave of comprehensive studies of leadership, particularly the studies of the traits of leaders (Bryman, 1992; Hunt, 1999).

From the above analysis, it is clear that the eight schools of leadership studies mentioned above appear to follow one after another as replacements. In fact, the leadership studies today are so far still at the stage of growth of schools that are competing with each other. After a century of studies, the focus of leadership research today comes back to traits studies(the new leadership studies, or visionary and charismatic leaders) an apparent return to the initial endeavor of leadership studies despite some new elements included in the new traits schools.

This coincides with the Taoism philosophy that ‘The universal truth is superior over all, which goes the furthest, yet eventually returns to its origin’. It demonstrates that the truth of everything including scientific studies lies in the original nature of the very subject, and only with the methods of returning to study its origin the absolute truth is to be found.

II. The Challenges to Leadership Studies

From the above brief literature review, it is clear that leadership studies went through quite a number of transformations of the theoretical models of leadership. Due to the absence of a comprehensive framework, researchers can fall into a great number of false hypotheses, and develop numerous theoretical perspectives and conflicting findings. It is not surprising to see Bennis (1959)argue “Of all the hazy and confounding areas in social psychology, leadership theory undoubtedly contends for top nomination. And, ironically, probably more has been written and less is known than about any other topic in the behavioral sciences”p.259-301

“For those who are not aware of the crises leadership researchers faced, imagine the following task: take bits and pieces of several sets of jigsaw puzzles, mix them, and then ask a friend to put the pieces together into one cohesive picture. Analogously, leadership researchers have struggled for most of the last century to put together an integrated, theoretically cohesive view of the nature of leadership, invariably leading to disappointment in those who studied it. At times, there was much dissatisfaction and pessimism and even calls for a moratorium on leadership research.” (Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003)

Leadership studies today are desperate for a systematic or holistic framework which would be able to integrate all the competing schools, enabling researchers to find their directions in the messy jungle of research and providing scientific methods for practitioners to understand and apply the existing theories. Nevertheless, due to the fact that present leadership studies follow the traditional positivist methodology of natural sciences – which adopts linear analysis, mathematic rationale and experimenting approaches -, it is hard to develop a holistic approach. Such an approach needs to integrate a wide range of findings that is needed for the social science of leadership studies. The underlying reason for this dilemma is very simple: because the positivist methodology emphasizes the control of relationships between variables, which excludes hypothetical causes and accidents, for the causality of the research subjects. There is a general tendency to establish increasingly detailed and complicated conditions for examining a subject, and as a result, the categorization of subjects is getting increasingly smaller. The methodology of natural sciences, thanks to the tangible objects in nature, is practical and quite effective for examining the associated subjects that can then be further divided into different fields. However, when this approach is applied to social sciences that are in nature fluid, changeable and complex, it inevitably meets challenges and faces greater uncertainties and conflicting outcomes. Leadership studies today with a background of numerous concepts, findings, schools and sub-schools competing with each other, are in fact the outcome of the positivist methodology utilized in the leadership studies.

To get out of the present dilemma of leadership studies, it is therefore necessary to look for a new approach which can effectively integrate all the leadership theories (Liu, 2006 To make this task possible, the oriental holistic thinking system, namely Taoism, may be a good basis for leadership studies to integrate all the competing theories.

III. Oriental Holistic Dialectic Philosophy‒Chinese Taoism

The philosophy of Taoism (Tao) is the core thinking system in the Chinese civilization, which exerts the most profound influence over Chinese culture that no other philosophy could possibly do in the same way. Taoism in nature is a philosophy that explores the origin and rules of the universe and mankind. The ‘Tao’, which embraces various explanations in different places,    in fact refers to ‘the universal way’ or ‘the absolute truth’. It is a complete philosophical system that starts from the revelation of relationship between universe and mankind and further extends to all aspects associated with human beings. Generally speaking, Taoism as a philosophy emphasizes a holistic study of the universe and mankind, which is characterized by both a    macro and a micro approach and provides dialectic investigation on all the subjects covered. Feng, 2004 Zhang, 1992)

Concerning the origin of the universe, Taoism believes that everything originates from nothing (the void) and eventually returns to nothing. The ‘Chi’ or the energy that combines two opposite forces – Yin and Yang – may be called the very starting point of the universe. The founder of Taoism Laotzi said ‘Tao gives birth to the first thing (Chi) that combines two forces (Yin and Yang). Yin and Yang are parents of three creators (heaven, earth and mankind ) who create all the things in the universe”. Today, thanks to the progress of science, we are able to judge or at least partially prove the validity and reliability of the fundamental theory of Taoism. We now know the smallest particles that form into the physical objects are merely energy, and that they are found to exist in the form of “particles” and “anti-particles”. Scientists are not only able to create them from “void”, but also find they disappear (returns to void) when a particle and an anti-particle meet each other. Moreover, it is true that nothing exists in nature without its opposite found in nature.

In addition, elaborating how Yin and Yang generate all the things in the universe, Taoism explains that Yin and Yang further generate five fundamental energies or the so-called “Five Elements”: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Of course, the five energies were named by the most common things that everyone can easily see and understand. These five elements, or the five fundamental energies to be exact, are apparently not the physical things in nature, but they do have quite similar functions of the five matters in nature. The observation of Taoism produces a theory that the universe is made up of the five fundamental energies, and human beings too are micro-cosmos of the universe that follows the operating rules of the five energies Liu, 2006

The abstract framework of the universe (Diagram 1) vividly depicts and generalizes the relationship of Yin and Yang, as well as that of the five energies. First of all, the ‘Chi’ or the original energy consists of two forces of which Yin (the black part) symbolizes passive force and Yang (the white part) active force. Within each force there exists a seed of its opposite force that eventually makes itself grow into its opposite. The energy starts from the smallest point of Yang,, grows to its maximum and then ceases to grow. It then begins its journey from the smallest Yin until it grows to the maximum of Yin, where Yang again takes its turn to grow. The Yin and Yang forces are depending on each other for existence: that is, neither of them can exist without the other’s existence. The cycle of the universe keeps going from Yin to Yang and from Yang to Yin, but each cycle reaches end up at a higher or lower dimension.

If the rule of Yin and Yang is called the fundamental law for the universe and everything in the universe, then the five-energy rule, according to Taoism, can be said to lay more subtle rules for all existing matter in the universe. Since Yin and Yang give birth to the five fundamental energies, the five energies determine the ways of the universe functioning. The diagram demonstrates a dynamic cycle where Wood energy gives birth to Fire energy, Fire to Earth, Earth to Metal, and Metal to Water, which then returns to Wood. Nevertheless, each energy controls its opposite and keeps a good balance of other another element functioning in the universe, for instance, Wood controls Earth, Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal, and Metal controls Wood. The theory illustrates that the universe and anything in the universe follow the principles of the functioning rules of the five energies: otherwise, the universe or the micro-system will be in the state of chaos.

The framework highlights the truth that everything combines two opposite forces and empahsises the co-existence of opposite forces in the universe. The model indicates that everything is in the process of eternal changes, in a cyclic manner, and nevertheless each stage of the circular process demonstrates different features of its nature (Yu & Yu, 2005; Shan, 1993).

Diagram 1: Taoist Model of the Universe and Mankind

From the above framework, universal rules of every existence in the universe are generalized as follows (Yu & Yu, 2005; Jin, 2005; Xiong, 2005)

1.    The Unity of Heaven and Mankind: “Mankind follows the rule of the Earth, the Earth       follows the rules of Heaven or the Universe, the Heaven    or the Universe follows the rule of Tao,    and Tao follows its own nature” (Laotzi, Tao Te Ching)

2.    Dialectics of the Opposite Forces: “Tao exists as the movement of Yin and Yang”,    “Every existence combines Yin and Yang.”

3.    Interdependence of the Opposite Forces: “Yin depends on Yang’s existence, and vice versa.”

4.    Interchangeability of the Opposite Forces: “Termination of Yin follows by beginning of Yang, and vice versa.”

5.    Infiniteness: Tao is not limited with boundaries either internally or externally

6.    Eternal Changing: “Changing is the universal law”

In fact, Taoism does not only reveal the above-mentioned laws of things working in the universe, but also generalizes the relationships between nature and the human body and even the internal dynamics of human organs and their associated functions. The principles of Taoism have provided the fundamentals for Chinese Traditional Medicine which is today widely accepted as a complimentary treatment to Western medicine. The accurate explanation, diagnosis and treatment of human ailments by Chinese Traditional Medicine are in effect under the guideline of the law of Yin and Yang and its associated five elements. There are now numerous scientific evidences to prove the validity and reliability of Chinese Traditional Medicine to human health Liu, 2006; Shan, 1993).

To give some ready examples from modern science, we may easily see the truth revealed by Taoism. For example, Taoism regulates that Yin and Yang are interdependent, and within Yin there will be a seed of Yang just as within Yang there will be a seed of Yin. “Singular pure Yang does not grow while singular pure Yin does not develop”. Human beings can be the best example, as mankind exists on the condition of men (Yang) and women (Yin) living together that depend on each other for existence. Furthermore, within a male body (Yang) modern medicine finds that the female hormone (Yin energy) exists for    the male body to function normally, while within a female body (Yin) male hormone is prerequisite for a healthy woman.

As for the Five-Element or five-energy theory, there is also much evidence to prove its validity and reliability. For example, modern physiology finds that quanta (energy) is the most fundamental element that forms the visible and tangible world that we live in. In addition, the quanta is found to have some five basic patterns that play significant role in the formation of tangible objects. Whether they have similar features as the Five-Element Theory designates, science may be able to prove in future.

However, from the evidence observed from both Chinese traditional medicine and modern Western medicine, the functions of human internal organs and the cycle of some diseases which occur in the human body coincide with the rules of the Five-Element theory. First of all, the liver in Chinese medicine functions as Wood energy which cleanses the body as it cleanses the earth. Modern medicine also proves that liver would be able to get rid of over 500 different toxins from our body. The heart functions as Fire energy which keeps the body functioning, just as it keeps the universe moving. Spleen(together with stomach) functions as Earth energy which absorbs, assimilates and transforms energy into different kind of things as it functions in nature. Lungs functions are Metal energy which defend or attack energy and keeps a good balance in the body. In nature, we can easily see metal creates the best tools for cutting or chopping wood and greeneries. Kidneys function as Water energy which is stored energy for further growth. From modern medicine we know that hormones stored in kidney are able to help us to deal with emergencies.

The above-mentioned evidence may sound naà ¯ve to you a skeptical observer,    However, there are numerous facts about modern life which provide reinforcing evidence. Today many people are putting on too much weight due to the affluence of our societies. Oover-weight people tend to eat more than normal persons and they also tend to get hungry more easily. Taoism or Chinese medicine tells us that these people have over-strong spleens (Earth energy) that function as fast-running engines. As the fast-running engines absorb more fuels (food), they run even faster. As a result, over-weight people will put on more weight (Flesh/Earth energy). Too much Earth energy (Spleen) will have to cause its opposite energy Water (Kidney) to go down, which explains why over-weight people normally suffer problems associated with their urine and genital systems. The most common disease of diabetics happens to over-weight people. The problems for over-weight people would not just stop in their Kidney but keep going on in the five-energy cycle. When Water energy (Kidney) is low, the Fire energy (Heart) is not controlled by the Water energy, and thus goes higher (beating faster), which eventually results in high blood pressure and other heart diseases. When the Fire energy (Heart) burns higher, it will damage the Metal energy (Lungs), which gives rise to Asthma and other lungs and skin problems. As Metal energy (Lungs) goes down, it won’t be able to keep the Wood energy (Liver) in a good balance, which results in dysfunctions of liver that fail to get rid of toxins from body. Once in this state, the patient has approached his/her last moment when he/she can only depend on medical intervention for survival due to inability to take in any food. Of course, Taoism or Chinese medicine would at this stage diagnose the termination of the micro-cosmos‒of death of the human body.    There is much evidence associated with diseases in human body that exactly follow the rules of Taoism or Chinese medicine. Although modern science so far has not been able to prove the theories of Taoism and Chinese Medicine, the numerous cases of success in treating human diseases have made Chinese Medicine popular both in China and in the West.

Of course, the Five-Element Theory is not only valid in medicine but also in our normal life. For example, anger is a damaging emotion to one’s liver, extreme joy (excitement) is bad for one’s heart, too much worry will result in dysfunctions of one’s stomach (spleen), too much grief will result in lung problems (in fact, people with lungs’ diseases tend to be very sad), and too much fear causes kidney problems (for example, people are scared to lose control of their urine). Other evidence is associated with the colors of energies which stimulate or control our appetite for food. One may understand from this theory that why McDonald and KFC decided that Red and Yellow should be the main colors of their shops. In fact, McDonalds spent many years investigating before they found that Red and Yellow are the two best colors to stimulate appetites, which coincides with the Five-Element Theories which existed a few thousand years ago in China.

There are numerous description of Yin-Yang and Five-Element theories in Taoism. We list a few belowr:

Table 1. Attributes of Yin and Yang

Yang Moving Active Hard Open positive
Yin Tranquil Passive Soft Conservative negative

Table 2, Five Energies, Nature and Human Body

Nature Human Body
Five Elements Sounds Tastes Colors Directions Seasons Functions Internal    Organs(Yin) Organs Tissues Emotions Liquids Internal Organs(Yang)
Wood Xu Sour Green East Spring Birth Liver Eyes Tendons Anger Tears Gall Bladder
Fire Ke Bitter Red South Summer Growth Heart Tongue Blood Vessel Joy Sweat Small Intestine
Earth Hu Sweet Yellow Middle Indian Summer Transform Spleen Mouth Flesh Worry Saliva Stomach
Metal Si Pungent White East Autumn Harvest Lungs Nose Skin Grief Mucus Big Intestine
Water qui Salty Black North Winter Storage Kidneys Ears Bones Fear Urine Bladder

From Book of Yellow Emperor,

In addition, the principles of Taoism have been applied to nearly all aspects of Chinese ancient disciplines. Since Taoism believes that everything that is out of Tao thus follows the law of Yin and Yang and its associated five-element theories, it has provided the guideline for Chinese politics, military, arts and agricultural practices. Taoism before modern times enabled Chinese people to achieve indisputable accomplishments in nearly all aspects of Chinese civilization. Even to today, Taoism is still the source of wisdom for Chinese as they solve existing problems and live better lives in modern times ( Jin, 2005).

Taoism and its associated Yin-Yang and Five-Element theories do not stop at the explanation of the apparent physical entities and their functions in the universe and human body. Taoism as a philosophy, may be most significant to human beings in its spiritual exploration of the universe and the virtue definition of human beings. Following the ideology of “Mankind follows the rule of the Earth, the Earth follows the rules of Heaven or the Universe, the Heaven or the Universe follows the rule of Tao,    and Tao follows its own nature”,    there are five spiritual virtues parallel with the five elements or energies. These are benevolence (wood), propriety (fire), faithfulness (earth), justice (metal) and wisdom (water), which are called the “Five-Virtue Principles” adopted by Confucianism in governing Chinese ancient societies. In a Confucian society in ancient times, the Five-Virtue Principles were provided as guidelines for selecting appropriate leaders and officials for governments. In addition, it provided fundamental principles to guide Chinese people on how to behave in society. According to Confucianism, to be a leader of a nation one needs to own all the five virtues in a way that is in complete balance, and only in this way would he be able to rule a nation in a most appropriate way. Following this theory, the most successful leaders are required to have all five virtues in the most harmonious way. In Chinese ancient literature, the theory was widely practiced in different fields, of which Sunzi’s Strategies of War is the best example.

IV. Taoism and Leadership Studies

From the literature, it appears that from the very beginning of leadership studies in early 1900s, there have been two competing perspectives concerning the nature of leadership. Which aspect decides the nature of leadership: the internal factors such as the traits of leaders and their resulting behaviours, or the external factors such as the context and followers The debates over these two competing views have essentially been the core of leadership studies in the West over the past century. As we know, the School of Traits and the majority of behaviour theories generally believe that the internal characteristics of leaders, such as traits, personalities, and behaviour exert the most decisive influence over followers and should therefore be regarded the fundamental factors in leadership studies. Nevertheless, the School of Contingency and many other theories, believe that external factors such as the context and followers decisions about the process of leadership should be regarded the most important factors for leadership studies. The School of Information Processing, based on modern psychological findings, argues that the internal factors of both leaders and followers – such as their knowledge, experiences and cognitive capabilities are the dominant factors that decide the nature of leadership.

Similarly, the Schools of New Leadership Theories, such as Charismatic, Visionary, Transformational or Transitional, generally tend to believe that internal factors including traits and their associated behaviours are the most significant factors that decide the nature of leadership (Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003; Bass, 1990).

However, the School of Relative theories combines confronting views on the internal and external factors, arguing that both leaders and followers are important forces deciding the nature of leadership. The interaction between leaders and followers is the deciding factor of leadership, whereas leaders or followers alone cannot decide the nature of leadership.

Lastly, we also need to mention the School of Skeptics, which simply criticises all the theories of leadership studies as based on questionable methodologies and unreliable evidence.,    For example, highly suspected approaches and case studies applied in leadership studies, conflicting finding which fail to reflect reality, and many other issues that appear to undermine the validity and reliability of leadership research. Some extremists in the school even question whether there is such a thing as leadership at all (Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003).

The above-mentioned debates are still going on in Western leadership studies. However, what outcome would a Taoist perspective provide for leadership studies We already know that Taoism is a philosophy which helps us study the universe, nature and mankind in general, and which believes that any existing matter or phenomenon in the universe consists of two interdependent yet competing forces. If this is true, leadership should be no different from any other matter or phenomenon in the universe, that is, it should consist of two competing and interdependent forces that follow the rules of Taoism as well. From a Taoist point of view, leadership is a phenomenon which exists in human society and is built upon the relationship between people. It therefore has no way to escape from the fundamental rules of Taoism that require an interdependent, interchangeable, and balanced relationship between its two internal competing forces.

From the analysis of the (massive) literature on leadership studies, there is evidence that in leadership theories there two dialectic relationships (Antonakis, Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2003; Bass, 1990; Lowe & Gardner, 2000), as follows:

1.          Leadership consists of two major dialectic objects: leaders and followers

2.        Leadership studies never progress beyond the two dialectic aspects: leadership itself and its existing context

3.          In leadership studies, researchers always have to examine the two dialectic factors: Traits (internal) and behaviors (external) of leaders

4.          To assess leadership performance, the dialectic relationship between leaders and their context is the fundamental issue that decides performance.

With a more careful analysis, it is clear that the above pairs of leadership entities follow the rules of Taoism, that is, they are interdependent, interchangeable and counter-balancing.    Concerning interdependence and counter-balance, few people would doubt the realities associated with their relationships. Nevertheless, interchangeability may be something people would doubt. In fact, from a Taoist perspective, leaders and followers are interchangeable, not just because leaders are followers of their superiors and followers might be leaders of their subordinates, but also their positions are changeable over the time. As for leadership and context, there appear to be two competing forces in a singular system of leadership. However, when they are placed in smaller or larger systems,    leadership or context alone or together may become internal or external forces of the associated systems. Examples are workshop leadership vs. organizational leadership (Context), or organizational leadership vs. industrial context. Similarly, traits and behaviours are interchangeable in the sense that behaviours would form into habits over time that finally would become part of one’s personality, whereas traits is the origin that gives birth to behaviors. As a result, it is not surprising to find pairs of fundamentals in leadership studies

Diagram 2: The Dialectic Relationship in Leadership Studies

As shown in the above diagram, the fundamentals in the different levels of leadership follow the rules of Taoism, which are interdependent, interchangeable and counter-balancing with each other, moreover, they also follow Taoist theory that there are always Yin and Yang (dialectic forces) in any beings or phenomena in the universe and entities with only Yin or Yang alone do not exist in the world (Xiong, 2005).

Of course, within other factors such as context, followers and others also exhibit dialectic relationship of pairs if they are further analysized. As this is not the key point of this paper, it is left for future studies. Through the above analysis, it is clear that rules of Taoism can be applied to leadership studies. In addition, we can explain why we are often confused by so many different categories and overlapping terms when we study existing models and theories of leadership. The reason is simply that the Western analytical tools that are good at detailed analysis fail to provide a comprehensive and integrated picture for leadership studies. Contemporary leadership studies generally adopt approaches derived from natural sciences, which tend to isolate the studying subject from entangled relationships. That is, they study a certain subject without looking at the integrated relationships between factors at different levels, creating many categories and overlapping terms that the researchers themselves failed to understand which levels they belong to. It is therefore fair to say that the numerous terms and categories in leadership studies are the inevitable outcome of Western scientific approaches, and it is also safe to say that without a more integrated tool the problems in leadership studies that are characterized as extremely complex and confusing for both researchers and readers won’t be easily solved. However, to prove that Taoism is one of the approaches to solve the problems of leadership studies, more evidence still needs to be provided.

With a more elaborated study of the relationships between leadership and context, or leaders and followers, we can easily find that they are two Yin-Yang systems: leadership and Context which contribute to a larger system of internal and external factors (organizational factors and environmental factors), whereas leaders and followers make up a smaller Yin-Yang system within an organization that is at the core of leadership studies. It is possible to understand the dialectic relationship of leaders and followers in an organization. However, people may find it difficult to relate leadership and context due to the fact that leadership is a smaller unit in comparison with its much greater context. Nevertheless, according to Taoism, leadership and context are equal parts of a system due to the fact that only associated issues in the greater context make up a relevant context for the leadership concerned. No matter how big the context is, the issues affect the leadership concerned are limited and finite, therefore they are regarded two dialectic pairs in the system of leadership studies.

Readers may also want to know which fundamentals in leadership are Yin and which are Yang. To achieve this, we have to take some time to explain the most important model of Taoism‒Taichi Diagram (Diagram 1). According to Taoism, the universe is the largest Yin-Yang system, whereas human society is one of the smaller Yin-Yang systems existing in the universe. Even every human being is a micro-system of Yin and Yang. There is a well-known Taoist saying “Mankind follows the rules of the earth which in turn follows the rules of Heaven (or the universe). Heaven (or the universe) follows the rules of Tao and Tao follows its own nature” (Xiong, 2005). From the Taichi Diagram, we can see that the Yin (black) which consists of a seed of Yang (white) will eventually grow into its opposite Yang (white), and similarly that the Yang part (white) consists of a seed of Yin (black) which eventually returns to its opposite Yin (white). The diagram demonstrates that Yang grows to its extreme which then returns to its opposite Yin, and visa versa. The cycle of Yin and Yang keeps going but doesn’t simply repeat, and then goes on either to an upward or downward new Yin-Yang cycle. Therefore, leaders and followers can be Yin or Yang at different stages of their development. The diagram also tells us that everything in the universe is subject to eternal changes (Li, 2000). In fact, even the cycle of leadership studies starts from the initiate study of traits (the Great Man theories) and then returns to the very recent New Traits Studies (Transformational, Charismatic, and Visionary). This is not a coincidence but a natural course subjects to the rules of Taoism.

As the dialectic relationship of Yin-Yang applies to leaders and followers, so does the existing theory of the Relatives School of Leaderships, which coincidently matches the Taoist theory of leadership However, this is not exactly true. The Relatives only emphasize the relationship between leaders and followers, which implies the two are equal parts without one being decisive. However, the Taoist Model of leadership is a dynamic cycle, which allows either leaders or followers to be the dominant power in the system. The exactly equal status of the two only exists for an extremely transient period of time. In addition, according to Taoism, Yang is a more proactive and moving force while Yin is a more passive and tranquil force. So in leadership studies leaders are regarded as the Yang force in an organization when they are proactive and serve as progressing force, while followers are the Yin force when they are passive and less active, or otherwise, leaders are Yin and followers Yang. The nature of leadership is decided by which force currently dominates the organization. In what follows, we elaborate on this point when studying the model of the traits of successful leaders based on Taoism.

V. The Taoist Model of Traits of Successful Leaders and Relevant Leadership Theories

In order to investigate the dynamic movement of leadership in an organization, a model of traits required for successful leaders which is based on the principles of Taoism has been developed. This model is not only designed to reflect the dynamics involved in leadership, but also to explain the majority of leadership theories that fit into the dynamic system. The following diagram demonstrates a Yin-Yang cycle of leadership in an organization, where the white part is Yang symbolizing for a proactive and driving force, and the black part is Yin symbolizing a passive and conservative force. Within each part there is a seed ( the opposite element) which grows in the process until it replaces its parent force. In the circle of the Taichi Diagram, five points are located for the five typical contexts (where the five elements are) in an organization based on the Yin-Yang status in the cycle. Through analysis of the five typical contexts of an organization by applying Taoism principles, five typical traits for successful leaders that fit in different contexts are illustrated. Within the circle of the Taichi Diagram, there are infinite points which may symbolize infinite different contexts for leadership, nevertheless following the Taoist principle, and five fundamental points are adopted to describe the most typical traits of leaders in an organization.

Diagram 3: Taoist Model of Traits of Successful Leaders




1, Yin-Yang Changing Process (Growth)

2,    Yin-Yang Changing Process (Control)

3,    Key Points of Yin-Yang

4, Black symbolizes for Yin, White symbolizes for Yang

The above model illustrates the five key points that represent the five typical contexts of an organization: Starting, Growing, Maturing, Aging and Dying. For each of the five contexts, five typical leaders who are characterized with traits of Benevolence, Propriety, Faithfulness, Justice and Wisdom are required to make the organization run successfully. As required by the state of an organization, different styles of leaders (Proactive or Passive) are needed to fit in with the contexts ( Yin or Yang) to make the organization successful.

The first stage of an organization is when the leaders are in the Wood position, which indicates a starting business or an organization in its very infant stage. According to Taoism, the successful leaders at this stage need to be have Yang characteristics of proactive and driving force, whose most outstanding trait should be benevolence. At this infant stage of a business, a leader needs to win the full support of his followers, and his vision and mission must be recognized by his followers. Because the success of an infant organization requires concerted efforts from all members in the organization, a successful leader who is benevolent will be loving, caring and listening. He tolerates the mistakes of the followers in order to encourage their creativity and innovative performance. As he needs everyone’s contribution, he tends to be very easy-going and very keen on gathering advice from his followers. He knows that the only way to retain talents is to take good care of their needs and to meet their desires for personal success,    and his loving and embracing energy will build up a charisma around him, which will attract various kind of talents around him. Based on the trait of benevolence, the leader successfully makes his organization grow rapidly by utilizing all the creative and innovative capabilities of his followers. People will praise him a charismatic leader and attribute the success to him without complaint. The theories from the Charismatic School would best suit the Wood stage of an organization, that is, the infant stage of the business.

The second phenomenon in an organization is when the leaders are in the Fire position, which indicates a rapidly developing business, with the organization at its growing stage. As the business or organization is rapidly developing, the whole organization is in an extremely strong Yang position. Leaders are excited by the rapid success of their business, and therefore tend to be very proactive and energetic in every aspect. The leader continuously implements new actions or strategies to influence or drive his followers to accelerate the rapid growth of the business or to enhance the gains from its success. The influence of leadership in the organization is so obvious that it appears any success of the organization is the outcome of the continuous efforts of the leadership. The nature of leadership is also obviously dominated by the traits and behaviors of the leader. Therefore, a leader appears to be he most important individual in the organization and his traits and behaviors are often regarded as indispensable factors for the success of the organization, thus being praised and studied. However, according to Taoist principles, at this stage the most outstanding trait of a successful leader is required to be propriety. As the rapidly growing organization has enabled the leader to be a proactive driving force, the leadership is in an extremely strong position in comparison with their followers. Leadership at this stage can easily be overwhelmed by their success and therefore put some unrealistic plans into practice, while the followers do not have sufficient force to stop them. In reality we have seen many such growing businesses have collapsed due to their overreaching plans for unrealistic goals beyond their capabilities. As a result, although a successful leader at this point is proactive and driving, however the most important trait of this leader needs to be “propriety”, that is, he is required to act appropriately in his plans and actions. The characteristics of self-constraint, treating followers in a proper way and taking appropriate actions in a measured way are regarded as most important at this stage. The leader should not be overwhelmed by his success but should keep a sharp eye on the potential dangers around him. Only in this way, the combination of his own traits, knowledge, capabilities and behaviors plus the status of the organization will make him a successful leader. Of course, in this particular stage of business, people generally attribute the success of the organization to the traits and the outstanding behaviors of the leader, which is consistent with the theories of Trait and Behavior Schools.

The third phenomenon in an organization is when the leaders are in the Earth position, which indicates an established business or an organization at its maturing stage. At this point, the business is undergoing stable growth with a mature organizational structure. The power balance between leadership and followers are at their ideal state, where the relationship is stable and the inter-communication between them is regarded effective and efficient.    According to the principles of Taoism, the trait of a successful leader at this stage is “faithfulness”, which indicates a sincere person loyal to his position and honest to his followers. His actions and plans are predictable due to his characteristics of “faithfulness”, and his style is democratic. The mutually important efforts of both the leadership and followers are regarded as the most important factor in the success of the organization. However, at this particular stage of business, there are a number of different approaches which could be adopted to obtain some expected success of the business due to the ideal state of business and the mature organizational structure?A leader, despite the balanced state between the leadership and followers, could choose to lead changes by convincing his followers to accept his vision. And if he is successful in doing so the business is likely to take a new leap to a renewed cycle of rapid growth, thus becoming like an infant business and    consistent with the transformational theories. In addition, another kind of leaders, fully considering the importance of their followers at this time, may choose to a more democratic way of leading by making exchanges with their followers through encouraging their contributions and meeting their needs and demands. This particular way of leading is also consistent with the theories of the Transformational or Transitional Schools.    Moreover, other leaders, particularly in the high-tech or knowledge-based business, may adopt a “laissez faire” style of leadership which empowers the followers so as to enable them to do their best for the success of business. A leader in this situation appears passive and listening to advice from the followers. Here the success of a business appears to come more from the efforts and wisdom of the followers than from the efforts of leaders. A leader here is more a facilitator or coordinator than a driver or a director. This style of leadership is consistent with the theories of “Lasse Faire” School. Although the above three kinds of leaders are using different approaches to be successful, their utmost trait is “faithfulness” which is in the fundamental force of their leadership.

The fourth phenomenon in an organization is when a leader is in the position of Metal. This is a stage when the business has passed its mature growing time and tends to be declining. Here the organization appears to be rigid in its organizational structure and the bureaucratic system is no longer proactive.    It reacts passively to changes from both internal and external environments. At this stage the leadership appears to be conservative when responding to stimuli internally or externally. Creative followers tend to be depressed and discouraged by the existing structure and system, while the “smart and sneaky” followers tends to benefit most from the system not through contribution but through idling or “growing their own business”. At this stage, a successful leader should have a strong trait of justice, using regulations, managerial skills and his power whenever necessary to enable followers to act in an appropriate way to contribute to the business. At the declining stage of business, a successful leader needs to be just and accountable in operating the business through awarding creative and capable followers while punishing idle and selfish followers through rules and regulations. Leadership characterised by strong managerial approaches and regulation techniques is usually regarded as a necessary approach to rescue the declining business, so a leader with the trait of “Justice” best serves the purpose of the business. This kind of leadership is consistent with the managerial school of leadership, one category of the Behavior School.

The final phenomenon is in an organization when the leader is in the position of Water, which indicates a business at its dying stage. At this stage the organization is in an extremely passive state where the organization structure is decaying and bureaucracy is only capable of keeping the business running at a near-bankrupt state. As the existing structure and system are under attack and is being damaged with no constructive replacement, leadership is passive to stimuli from the internal and external environments and the creativity of followers is suppressed. Capable and creative followers leave. The business is in fact at the intersection of death and birth. A successful leader at this stage needs to have the trait of “Wisdom”, to have insights into the existing problems of the organization and the wisdom to put forward an encouraging vision for all followers to bring the business out of bankruptcy and to a convincing bright future. A leader at this stage therefore should have great cognitive abilities and be able to portray an encouraging vision for the business,. His wisdom to point out a new direction for the organization and to make a new birth for the business should gain confidence from his followers. Such leadership is consistent with the theories of Visionary School, which requires visionary power to change the existing dying business and to inspire depressed followers.

In order to better understand the above-mentioned model of the traits of successful leaders, the following table lists all the Taoist principles and relevant modern theories associated with the traits of successful leaders under different circumstances:

Table 3, Principles of Daoism, Traits of Successful Leaders and Adaptive Leadership Theories

Name Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Relationship between Leaders and followers Proactive and Relatively Strong Proactive and Very Strong Match   Proactive       or             Passive Passive and Relatively Strong Passive and Very Strong
Traits of Leaders Benevolence Propriety Faithfulness Justice Wisdom
Traits of Successful leaders Compassion, Easy-going, Care, listen to others,   Tolerance for mistakes Doing things or treating followers appropriately, deciding or convincing by demonstrating good balance in actions and behaviors Consistence of behaviors, faithful to words and acts, loyal to vision and mission, democratic way of doing things    


Strong responsibility, doing things by law and regulations, justice on reward and punishment Visionary, farsighted, super-cognitive capability
Leadership style Power of Embracing Power of Convincing Power of Cohesion Power of Accountability Power of Inspiring
Best theories charismatic Traits/behavioral Transformational   / Transitional

Or Transactional

Or Lasse Faire


Behavioral-Managerial Visional
Organizational Stage Infancy Youth Maturity Declining Dying

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the model of the traits of successful leaders based on Taoist principles is only a brief framework for categorising the major theories generated by modern leadership studies. As it is clear that infinite points exist in the cycle of the model, so theoretically infinite theories are needed to explain the real outcomes. Nevertheless, the human mind needs some tangible and stable model to help to understand unstable and changeable realities, and a model with five categories provides ready tool for us to understand what is happening in organizations and their associated leadership styles. According to Taoism, the circumstances of leadership at both internal and external levels are under constant change. Under one particular circumstance, a particular theory might best explain actual events; however, as the cycle tends to change continuously, changed theories are required to cope with the changes. Therefore , no fixed theories are able to explain or cope with the actual events all the time. As a result, Taoism tells us that we can only expect some kind of “predictable” theories to guide us in “unpredictable” realities, and the leadership phenomena are no exceptions.

Thus from the above discussion, it is also obvious that confronting and conflicting theories in the contemporary leadership literature are not surprising due ever-changing realities and the assumed scientific findings of leadership studies. The current methodologies adopted in leadership studies are in fact the very cause of the conflicts, for example because researchers tried to isolate the factors of leadership from their changing contexts and would often draw conclusions from isolated cases. Because they ignore the changes to the internal and external contexts of leadership, their theories are far from adequately explaining the real events, and at best discover some realities associated with a fixed point of the changing cycle of leadership. However, each researcher usually declares his theory to be the absolute truth to leadership or his findings to be the most valid and reliable guide to leadership practices. Inevitable conflicts between theories and findings are the result. As there is no holistic framework to integrate all the leadership theories in the current leadership studies, it is therefore not surprising that both researchers and practitioners are lost in the numerous leadership findings and theories.

Although modern leadership studies do have problems of this and that, one should not denounce them as rubbish or pseudo-science, as some proponents of the Skeptical School maintain. Modern leadership studies have already discovered many isolated ‘truths’ associated to their respective circumstances, which then call for a holistic framework to integrate them together. For example, the theories of Trait School, Behaviour School, Relative School, New Leadership School (Visionary, Charismatic, transformational/transitional) and still many others, have all discovered truth in their respective contexts, at certain stages in the leadership cycle. As a result, this model based on Taoism is also a trial of integrating all the existing theories.

As the model based on Taoism highlights the changes of contexts, thus requiring relevant traits and behaviours of leaders to fit the changing circumstances, it has similarities to the Contingency theories of leadership studies. However, although contingency theories do have some similarities to the Taoist model, these are not exactly in the same way. The contingency theories argue that leaders should change their behaviors to follow the changing contexts, more or less in a passive way to fit in with the environments. In reality, at different stages leadership itself is at a Yang stage as a proactive and driving force, thus leading the changes or    creating changes in some circumstances. In other circumstances, for example in the Earth and Water stages of the cycle, visionary and transformational leaders are able to change the circumstances rather than just follow suit. Often the Taoist model of leadership can better describes the real events.

In addition, some of the theories in leadership studies such as the Information Process School and the Skeptic School are not included in the model due to the fact the two are more like the tools for leadership studies rather than adequately explaining real events. For example, the Information Process School focuses on the cognitive process or cognitive framework of leaders and followers while the Skeptics mainly investigate the failures of existing theories. While recognising their importance as research tools for leadership studies, they are not included as leadership theories to explain the changing realities associated.

The Model of Taoist Leadership outlined in this paper is only a very rudimentary one, and has so far ignored many other variables in the leadership context. In particular the external factors such as the industrial or social contexts in which the organization exists. As changes occur both in the internal and external context of the organization and leadership itself, more variables or factors need to be taken into consideration. As more dynamic and more unpredictable contexts bring about more changes in the relevant leadership styles, the model will get more complex in relevant traits and behaviors required to reflect the real events. It is fair to say that the current model is an assumed “ideal” state to describe the core relationship of leadership‒leaders and followers in a changing context, but that is has ignored the greater context of leadership such as the dynamic external industrial or social contexts. As leadership and external context form into the a larger Yin-Yang cycle, it can expected to develop interesting picture of leadership movements and a more complex model of leadership to explain the real events. We would like to discuss this issue further in the future.

VI: Conclusion

Our contention is that Chinese traditional Taoism is a strong tool for a holistic study of social sciences, because it is good at dialectic study of a phenomena in the changing process,. It therefore complements the inadequacies of the Western positivist approach that is good at analytical investigation of an isolated subject in a stable context. With a combination of Taoism and Western Scientific methodologies, realities are more likely to be discovered in a more accurate way. Through the study of the existing problems of leadership studies and the establishment of a Taoist model of leadership, we may conclude as follows:

1, Traditional Taoism is not dated, and it complements the inadequacies of modern philosophies.

2, The Oriental wisdom such as Taoism is good at holistic observation while the Western science is good at positivism and analysis, so a combination the two will provide a enhanced tool for discovering the realities in the universe.

3, Through a combination of Taoism and modern leadership theories, a brand-new leadership model or theory is likely to be developed to account for real organizationsational outcomes.

We wish more efforts be taken into this field so that a greater understanding of both leadership and Taoism can be achieved.


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