It’s not easy to see how the Tao-te Ching, which advocates “nonaction,” “naturalness,” and essentially going with the flow, pertains to the incessant demands of entrepreneurship, but I’ve managed to find some of its wisdom really helpful in building businesses. This ancient Chinese spiritual text is believed to have been written around the 6th Century BCE by a sage named Lao-tzu or Laozi (“old master”), but modern scholarship considers Laozi to be fictional and the authorship to be shared among a group of philosophers. Irrelevant to questions of its provenance are the facts that it launched the major philosophical and religious movement of Taoism and inspired millions of people around the world—me among them.
Translated as “Classic of the Way and Virtue,” the Tao-te Ching contains 81 verses that describe how to live in the world with goodness, integrity, and empathy for others. It promotes aligning oneself with the cosmic force of the Tao, the creator and mover of all things, to enrich one’s life and to live in harmony with the universe. The alternative of living in opposition to the Tao only causes sadness and anger, which in turn can lead to misguided behaviors.
I’ve kept these ideas in mind when growing and directing my companies’ teams. I try to hire individuals who bring their own high level of positive energy, so that I can guide it and integrate it with other members of the team, rather than fight or control it. I view my job as identifying all the good (i.e., energy and talent) that’s already out there and bringing it together for the purpose of a common mission.
Taoist philosophers believe that humanity’s obsessive need to name things and ask unanswerable questions leads to dysfunction. In the start-up world, founders are constantly presented with unanswerable questions, and attempting to resolve everything before making a move forward simply isn’t viable; it would be paralyzing. While it’s important to be diligent and educated before making high-stakes decisions, I’ve learned that I need to let go of the illusion that certainty is attainable.
Another theme of Taoism that has impacted my leadership approach is detachment. Not getting too emotionally attached to one way of doing things allows me to pivot when the facts indicate that a different way is probably better. However, as a leader, I do eventually need to pick a path and generate enthusiasm and energy for it, so I try to balance the two mindsets, moderation in detachment. Which leads me to yet another Taoist concept: balancing opposing forces, or the Yin and the Yang. Building a business is a constant balancing act between information and uncertainty, cautiousness and risk, control and surrender, social mission and self-interest.t, etc. It’s no wonder that, as the stats for start-ups show, there’s no simple formula for success.