Applying the Ancient Concept of Wu Wei to Modern Leadership
“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but…to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” – Dorothy Nevill
The premise of leaving words unsaid and non-action, or wu wei as per Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching, seems paradoxical in the context of the modern world’s organizations predilection for high productivity. Yet, the urgency to take action can lead to unintended impact and even harmful unforeseen consequences. Instead, becoming internally directed by “continually examining [our] own hypocrisy and closing the gaps between [our] values and behaviour,” and engaging in reflective action is the way to determine the optimal leverage points for action.
There are many contemporary references to the need for and application of the non-action principle as an integral component of leadership. Robert Quinn’s Fundamental State of Leadership described in Building The Bridge As You Walk On It states, “Most of us in the organizational world…are engulfed in action, at the expense of contemplation and reflection. This extreme is just as isolating as the extreme of contemplation divorced from action.” Goleman et.al describes the connection between resonant leadership and self-awareness traits with the propensity for quiet self-reflection and thoughtfulness being the most effective even though it is the least visibly active. Empowerment is a form of non-action where rather than taking action themselves, leaders open space to creative tension within others thereby giving rise to deep thoughts and innovation The power of this is illustrated in transformational coaching which advocates silence after asking a question to allow the client reflection time and demonstrate the intention to listen. So too, the process of Appreciative Inquiry implies the use of non-action during the first two reflective stages of the 4D model; discovery of what is working well and dreaming to imagine what might be. Lastly, non action is significant in systems thinking where it is important to seek understanding before taking action as stated by Donella Meadows in Dancing with Systems:
- Get the beat; before you disturb a system, watch how it behaves; study its beat, watch it work,
- Stay humble. Stay a learner; …trust intuition more and figuring-out rationality less,
- Listen to the wisdom of the system; …don’t be an unthinking intervener… Rather, pay attention to the value of what’s already there and help the system run itself. 
In conclusion, it is important not to mistake non-action for inertia and underestimate its application in organizational leadership. Choosing inaction, or in this case non-action, is still active and has consequences as a river flowing naturally changes the landscape with erosion. Likewise, consider how black and white contrast each other to give a picture perspective and feeling pain gives greater context to our experience of joy. As per Newton’s third law of motion where “for every action there is equal and opposite reaction,” similarly, it is non-action that makes action constructive as is illustrated by Lao Tzu’s in Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 11:
We make a vessel from a lump of clay;
It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful,
We make doors and windows for a room;
But it is these empty spaces that make the room liveable.
Thus, while the tangible has advantages,
It is the intangible that makes it useful.
Through this active non-action, going slow to go fast, “The peaceful and serene, [can be] the Norm of the World.”
“A.I. Publications and Workbook Series.” Lakeshore Communications Website,, accessed June 2, 2005.
“Newton’s Laws of Motion.” Answers.com Website, <http://www.answers.com/topic/newton-slaws-of-motion>, accessed June 9, 2005.
Crane, Thomas G. The Heart of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching to Create a High-Performance Culture. San Diego: FTA Press, 2002. Reprint, Second Edition.
Goleman, Daniel, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Meadows, Donella. Dancing with Systems. In Whole Earth, Winter 2001,<http://www.wholeearthmag.com/ArticleBin/447.html>. (accessed April 1, 2005).
Quinn, Robert E. Building the Bridge as You Walk on It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Tzu, Lao. Tao Teh Ching. Translated by John C.H. Wu. Boston: Shambala Publications Inc, 2003.
Dorothy Nevill, quoted in Ibid. p 164.
 Robert E. Quinn, Building The Bridge As You Walk On It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004). p 22.
 Ibid. p 99.
 Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002). p40
 Thomas G. Crane, The Heart Of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching To Create a High-Performance Culture (San Diego: FTA Press, 2002; reprint, Second Edition). p 102.
 “A.I. Publications and Workbook Series,” Lakeshore Communications Website,<http://www.lakeshorepublishers.com/aiwebsite/index.htm>, accessed June 2, 2005.
 Donella Meadows, Dancing with Systems (Winter 2001) (June 2, 2005 [cited April 1 2005]); available from <http://www.wholeearthmag.com/ArticleBin/447.html>.
[8 ] “Newton’s Laws of Motion,” Answers.com Website, http://www.answers.com/topic/newton-s-laws-of-motion, accessed June 9, 2005.
[9 ]Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, trans. John C.H. Wu (Boston: Shambala Publications Inc, 2003).p 164
 Ibid. p 105