Wu Wei: Act Without Forcing

Only those who can lead them­selves can lead oth­ers. This is how Father Anselm Grün sums up the essen­tial chal­lenge of self-lead­er­ship. Those who want to serve life and unleash human poten­tial as described in the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship need first and fore­most clar­i­ty about the nature of life and espe­cial­ly about their life. Only who has? And who takes the time today to think about the nature of life? A short excur­sion into Tao­ism exem­pli­fied by the evo­lu­tion of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Leadership.

Life is not a Journey

A good trav­el­er has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.


Since school days, we rush from pro­mo­tion to pro­mo­tion (a strange­ly pas­sive term and process in the con­text of lead­ing your life) in the hope of mak­ing it and reach­ing a goal of some kind. Time- and self-man­age­ment guides there­fore also encour­age us to write our own eulo­gy so that we can become aware of our life goals and work towards them. 

Per­haps, how­ev­er, life is not such a jour­ney towards a des­ti­na­tion at all, but the jour­ney itself is the goal. For this rea­son, the pop­u­lar Eng­lish philoso­pher Alan Watts com­pares the nature of our lives to play­ing a piece of music or dancing:

We thought of life by anal­o­gy with a jour­ney, with a pil­grim­age, which had a seri­ous pur­pose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Suc­cess, or what­ev­er it is, or maybe heav­en after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musi­cal thing, and you were sup­posed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.

Alan Watts

Wu wei: Act without Forcing

Wu wei (無為) is the cen­tral con­cept of Tao­ism. It is first men­tioned in the Tao Te Ching, which accord­ing to leg­end goes back to the sage Laozi (ca. 6th cen­tu­ry BC). Lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed “Wu” sim­ply means “not”, thus being a nega­tion, and “Wei” means doing, act­ing or effort. Lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed Wu wei there­fore means non-action. How­ev­er, this does not mean inac­tiv­i­ty or lazi­ness, but rather the refusal to act against the nature of things. The trans­la­tion that I like best is the one I heard from Alan Watts (see this video): act with­out forcing.

Act with­out doing;
work with­out effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Con­front the dif­fi­cult
while it is still easy;
accom­plish the great task
by a series of small acts.


Wu wei there­fore means – com­plete­ly in the spir­it of agili­ty – rec­og­niz­ing and using the pos­si­bil­i­ties avail­able here and now, mak­ing small steps and then learn­ing from these steps, which even­tu­al­ly leads to great accomplishments.

Wu Wei in Practice: The Evolution of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership

The idea for the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship was born on Jan­u­ary 29, 2018 fol­low­ing a work­shop in the BMW Group IT as part of our agile trans­for­ma­tion. In this work­shop, four hier­ar­chi­cal lev­els from the employ­ee to the vice pres­i­dent reflect­ed on how lead­er­ship has to change through the agile trans­for­ma­tion. At the core of the reflec­tions and this work­shop were the con­vic­tions that agili­ty is essen­tial­ly based on auton­o­my, self-orga­ni­za­tion and sub­sidiar­i­ty, that lead­er­ship must now be dis­trib­uted among sev­er­al roles and that it thus has to change.

Some­how, at the end of this work­shop, the idea came up to sum­ma­rize the find­ings of count­less sticky notes from three hours of dis­cus­sion in the style of the Man­i­festo for Agile Soft­ware Devel­op­ment. Sev­er­al days lat­er I start­ed the first attempt with this first the­sis on Twit­ter (and LinkedIn) – and this is how it all started:


Grad­u­al­ly, the remain­ing five the­ses of the man­i­festo devel­oped with­in a few days, which I then final­ly pub­lished not even a week after this first tweet sum­ma­rized here in the blog:


The man­i­festo trig­gered many inter­nal and exter­nal dis­cus­sions in which I had to become clear­er about my inter­pre­ta­tion of the the­ses. From these dis­cus­sions and con­sid­er­a­tions an arti­cle on each the­sis arose in the fol­low­ing month (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6).

As the first anniver­sary of the Man­i­festo approached, I first thought about updat­ing the Man­i­festo and adding, for exam­ple, “Ask­ing ques­tions more than giv­ing answers”. But some­how I stum­bled across Lean­pub and decid­ed I’d rather pub­lish the Man­i­festo with the detailed arti­cles and oth­ers that would go well with it as a brief e‑book, which I then did exact­ly one year after the Man­i­festo was released. 

The paper­back on the Man­i­festo is also very well suit­ed to show your appreciation.

And after the e‑books (Ger­man and Eng­lish) found sev­er­al hun­dred read­ers, I had the idea that a print­ed book would also be very nice, not least because you can hand it to a man­ag­er as an expres­sion of appre­ci­a­tion. So I took the dust off my LaTeX knowl­edge, which I had nev­er used since my doc­tor­ate, and com­plete­ly reworked the e‑book into a paper­back, which is avail­able since April 10, 2019 on Ama­zon (only in the Ger­man ver­sion … so far).

You can’t con­nect the dots look­ing for­ward; you can only con­nect them look­ing back­wards. So you have to trust that the dots will some­how con­nect in your future. You have to trust in some­thing — your gut, des­tiny, life, kar­ma, what­ev­er. This approach has nev­er let me down, and it has made all the dif­fer­ence in my life.

Steve Jobs

In ret­ro­spect, this path of devel­op­ment sounds strin­gent and log­i­cal, but it was nev­er planned. I nev­er intend­ed to pub­lish a book on the Man­i­festo and I did not intend to become an author in the eulo­gy exer­cise. This path emerged from the oppor­tu­ni­ties that arose step by step. Very wu wei: act­ing in flow with­out forc­ing anything.

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