Real Power

real power

Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching

With James A. Autry

Riverhead 1998

A premier business consultant offers practical lessons from one of the world’s most profound works of wisdom and shows how to transform the workplace into a source of immense satisfaction and fulfillment.

Widely considered the wisest book ever written, the Tao Te Ching shows leaders how to guide their communities to peaceful productivity and happiness. James Autry and Stephen Mitchell have now brought this wisdom to bear on the most significant arena of life outside family: work. Real Power will change the way working people look at how they spend this time, and shows how to create an environment in which everyone’s power can be expressed in order to produce the best results for everyone.


by Stephen Mitchell

The Tao Te Ching — pronounced Dow (no pun intended) Deh Jing — teaches a widom that was ancient even for Lao-tzu, its perhaps legendary author, who did or didn’t write it around the year 500 B.C.E. Though it was almost unknown in the West until the twentieth century, it is by now the most widely translated book in the world, aside from the Bible. It has been called the wisest book ever written. It is also the most practical book ever written. In eighty-one brief chapters, the Tao Te Ching looks at the basic predicament of being human and gives advice that imparts balance and perspective, a serene and generous spirit. It teaches how to work for the good with the effortless skill that comes from being in accord with reality, and it applies equally well to the governing of a nation or the raising of a child. It is the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and Largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.

Like all realms of human activity, business and management can be powerfully illuminated by the teaching of the Tao Te Ching. But the text is so dense, so packed with essence, that its relevance may at first be hard to see. That is why Jim Autry and I decided to select these passages and adapt them for business people (the number at the bottom of the selection refers to the chapter number in the original version). The commentary — Jim’s mostly, with suggestions by me — is an unpacking and a filling-out of certain aspects of the text. Of course, the Tao Te Ching is deeper and wider than any explanation of it could be. After reading each chapter of commentary, you may also want to spend some time with the text, by itself, even — or especially — when it seems impenetrable. What is impenetrable today may be crystal-clear tomorrow. It grows clear as you put it into practice.

Many people, in their first encounters with the Tao Te Ching, get stuck on the word Tao. Literally it means “the Way,” and it indicates the way things are, the source or essence or basic principle of the universe. You may find this difficult to grasp. Actually, it’s impossible to grasp. That’s the point! Anything words can say about it isn’t it. It’s unthinkable, unimaginable, unpindownable.

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

(from Chapter 25 of the original, not included in our selection)

The Tao isn’t an idea. Nor is it some kind of airy-fairy mystical imagining. Even though you can’t perceive it, it is always present, always with you. “The Tao is the law of nature,” another ancient classic says, “which your true self can’t depart from even for one instant. If you could depart from it, it wouldn’t be the Tao.” It is the realest of the real. You can’t see it, but you can see its effects, the way physicists can trace the path of a sub-atomic particle through a cloud chamber. With a little practice, you’ll find it easy to sense when you’re in harmony with the Tao and when you’re going against its current.

We all know, from our experience of sports or dance, what it’s like to be “in the Tao” or “in the zone”: caught up in the current of energy where the right action happens by itself, effortlessly. Somehow the innate intelligence of the body takes over for a while, and the ball throws the ball, the racquet swings the racquet, we can’t tell the dancer from the dance. This is a paradigm for what the Tao Te Ching calls “not-doing” or “non-action”: the purest and most effective form of action. It is always a magical experience. If you think about it, you lose it. If you try to make it happen, it won’t. It comes and goes at its own sweet pleasure. When it comes, we are thrilled and grateful. When it’s gone, we try to do our ordinary best. The central lesson here is to let go of control, to let go of even the desire to control. When the ego steps out of the way, the Tao steps in, intelligent beyond our dreams.

The more you embody these teachings, the more the scattered parts of your life fall into place and become a seamless whole; work seems effortless; your heart opens by itself to all the people in your life; you have time for everything worthwhile; your mind becomes empty, transparent, serene; you embrace sorrow as much as joy, failure as much as success; you unthinkingly act with integrity and compassion; and you find that you have come to trust life completely.

Lao-tzu’s central figure, which he calls the Master, is a man or a woman whose life is in perfect harmony with the way things are. She or he is the opposite of an idealist or a mystic; is in fact infinitely down-to-earth, capable, flexible, sexy, humorous, loving, and radiantly alive. The Master, the mature person, the wise leader, is a reality that can be embodied by each one of us. We are all potentially the Master, since the Master is the essential us, seeing all things with our original face. Nothing in the world is as beautiful as this face. If you look in the mirror with enough patience, that’s the one you will see.


In Real Power, Autry and Mitchell demonstrate that ancient wisdom is good business. This unique CEO-poet partnership uses the time-tested lessons of the past to enable success in today’s business world. Real Power is a guidebook no serious person can afford to miss. It will change the way you work and deepen the way you live.
— Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom

This book offers the wisest business advice you will ever find — eminently practical and profoundly empowering. The Tao brings true freshness, clarity, and a love of work to employer and employee alike.
— Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart

A remarkable constellation of qualities. A book to have near at hand, day by day, to savor a few pages at a time. It gives a threefold benefit: the wisdom of one of the world’s greatest texts, a magnificent contemporary translation, and the thoughts and hard-won experience of a tried-and-true business leader who is also a fine poet.
— David Whyte, author of The Heart Aroused

Jim Autry reminds us that real power emanates from conviction, compassion, and wisdom. I bought this book for all my senior officers.
— R. Brad Martin, chairman and CEO, Profitt’s Inc.

Real Power is an insightful synthesis of ancient wisdom and practical leadership lessons. It will speak to your heart as well as your mind and help you becomes a more powerful and successful leader.
— Peter Roy, president, Whole Foods