Skip to main content

Daoism in Management


The paper concentrates on the Chinese philosophical strand of Daoism and analyses in how far this philosophy can contribute to new directions in management theory. Daoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy, which can only be traced back roughly to about 200 or 100 BC when during Han dynasty the writers Laozi and Zhuangzi were identified as “Daoists”. However, during Han dynasty Daoism and prevalent Confucianism intermingled. Generally, it is rather difficult today to clearly discern Daoist thought from other philosophical strands as in the same period also Buddhism, Mohism and Legalism shaped contemporary thinking. Furthermore, there is a difference between the religious practice of Daoism in the sense of popular religion and the theoretical basis of Daoist thought presented in Laozi and Zhuangzi. The religious practice in contrast can have very mystical elements, which are linked to superstition. Moreover, there is also the question of in how far Daoist thought and practice is still prevalent at all in Chinese society today. Hence, the picture of Daoism is heterogeneous, first, regarding the question of what can be defined as the “original core” of Daoism, second, the difference between thought and religious practice, and third, the question of the prevalence of Daoist thought in China today. This paper offers a broader discussion regarding the potential ways of application of Daoist thought today over five parts. First, it illuminates the most important values taught under the name of Daoism. Thereby, it focuses on the Daoist thought and leaves out the actual religious practice together with its mystical elements. Second, these values are then put into the management context to analyse in how far Daoism can broaden our contemporary understanding of management in general and different management styles in particular. Third, Daoism in a management context is then contrasted with the comparably rigid Confucian doctrine also applied in a business context. Here, the application of Daoist and Confucian thought in the fields of leadership, management and corporate ethics is presented and compared. Fourth, insights into the real business practice in China regarding Chinese philosophies like Daoism and Confucianism in fields like management, strategy or corporate ethics are provided. Fifth, an outlook is presented where Daoism is discussed in the context of contemporary debates on sustainability and CSR. Here, the proposed paper illuminates in how far the philosophy of Daoism can also contribute to a more holistic understanding of sustainability and CSR today, thereby contributing to more innovative solutions in management.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Here, C.G. Jung refers to Richard Wilhelm (1873–1930), a well-known German Theologist, China expert and translator of Laozi’s works like the Dao de Jing and the I Ging (Yi Jing) (Rosenberger, n.d.).

  2. C.G. Jung’s interpretation, which is drawn from his commentary on Richard Wilhelm’s English translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower was first published in 1931, shortly after Wilhelm’s death. Another version of this book was then published in 1962.

  3. The meaning of the title of Laozi’s book Dao De Jing is translated into way (dao) and virtue (de). This comes close to the Western term of “ethics” or “morality”, according to Lin et al. (2013, 92).

  4. For example, the development of the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, 中庸 (zhong yong), is ascribed to Confucius’ grandson Zisi (Eno 2010, 1).

  5. The Confucian teachings comprise further virtues like honesty 誠 (cheng), kindness or forgiveness 恕 (shu), honesty and cleanness 廉 (lian), shame or the sense of right and wrong 恥 (chi), bravery 勇 (yong), kindness or gentleness 溫 (wen), kind-heartedness 良 (liang), respectfulness, reverence 恭 (gong), frugality 儉 (jian), modesty or self-effacement 讓 (rang) (Epps 2012, p.63; Wang et al. 2012, p.509).


  • Chan, Gary Kok Yew. 2008. The relevance and value of Confucianism in contemporary business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics 77: 347–360.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cheung, C., and A. Chan. 2008. Benefits of Hong Kong Chinese CEO’s Confucian and Daoist leadership styles. Leadership and Organization Development Journal 29(6): 474–503.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chung, Kun Young, John W. Eichenseher, and Teruso Taniguchi. 2008. Ethical perceptions of business students: Differences between East Asia and the USA and among “Confucian” cultures. Journal of Business Ethics 79: 121–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Han Dynasty.” n.d. Han Dynasty, Chinese History. Web. Accessed 27 Mar 2015.

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Huangdi.” n.d. Huangdi, Chinese Mythological Emperor. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. Accessed 27 Mar 2015.

  • Eno, R. 2010. The Doctrine of the Mean. Working paper no. [B/E/P374]. Indiana University. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.

  • Epps, Henry H. 2012. The universal golden rule: A philosopher perspective. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform.

  • Gerstner, Ansgar. 2011. Leadership and organizational patterns in the Daodejing. The Journal of Management Development 30(7/8): 675–684.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gruchmann, Alexander. 2008. Mitarbeiterführung in China Eine Kulturbezogene Betrachtung. Hamburg: Diplomica-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hennig, A. 2013. The ethical background of business in China - An Outline. In World Humanism: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Ethical Practices in Organizations, ed. Khan, S., W. Amann, 194–207. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten. 2009. Social capital, Chinese style: Individualism, relational collectivism and the cultural embeddedness of the institutions-performance link. China Economic Journal 2(3): 325–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten. 2015. Wachstum, Macht Und Ordnung Eine Wirtschaftsphilosophische Auseinandersetzung Mit China, 2014. Weimar (Lahn): Metropolis.

    Google Scholar 

  • Huang, Ning. 2008. Wie Chinesen denken: Denkphilosophie, Welt- und Menschenbilder in China. München: Oldenbourg.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ip, Po. Keung. 2009. Is Confucianism good for business ethics in China? Journal of Business Ethics 88: 463–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jung, C.G. 1962. Commentaries. In The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life, Trans. Wilhelm, R., 81–138. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.

  • Koehn, Daryl. 2001. Confucian trustworthiness and the practice of business in China. Business Ethics Quarterly 11(3): 415.

  • Lee, Yueh-Ting, Ai-Guo Han, Tammy K. Byron, and Hong-Xia Fan. 2008. Daoist leadership: Theory and application. In Leadership and management in china: Philosophies, theories, and practices, ed. Chao-chuan Chen, 83–107. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Lin, Liang-Hung, Yu-Ling Ho, and Wei-Hsin Eugenia Lin. 2013. Confucian and Taoist work values: An exploratory study of the Chinese transformational leadership behavior. Journal of Business Ethics 113(1): 91–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miller, James. 2006. Daoism and nature. In The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb, 220–35. Oxford: Oxford UP.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, James. 2013. Daoism and development. In Handbook of research on development and religion, ed. Clarke Matthew, 113–23. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Limited.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Robertson, Christopher J., Bradley J. Olson, K. Matthew Gilley, and Yongjian Bao. 2008. A cross-cultural comparison of ethical orientations and willingness to sacrifice ethical standards: China versus Peru. Journal of Business Ethics 81: 413–425.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Romar, Edward J. 2002. Virtue is good business: Confucianism as a practical business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics 38: 119–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rosenberger, Anja. “Richard Wilhelm.” Richard Wilhelm Yijing. ZhanDao Yijing Akademie, n.d. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.

  • Schwanfelder, Werner. 2006. Konfuzius Im Management Werte Und Weisheiten Im 21. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt/Main: Campus-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Hansen, Chad. 2007. “Daoism.” Daoism, Web. Accessed 27 Mar 2015.

  • Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Chan, Alan. 2013. “Laozi.” Laozi. Web. Accessed 27 Mar 2015.

  • Tian, Qing. 2008. Perception of business bribery in China: The impact of moral philosophy. Journal of Business Ethics 80(3): 437–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van Ess, Hans. 2009. Der Konfuzianismus. München: Beck.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wang, Catherine L., Ding Ding Tee, and Pervaiz K. Ahmed. 2012. Entrepreneurial leadership and context in Chinese firms: A tale of two Chinese private enterprises. Asia Pacific Business Review 18(4): 505–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weber, James. 2009. Using exemplary business practices to identify Buddhist and Confucian ethical value systems. Business and Society Review 114(4): 511–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Webster, Ken, and Craig Johnson. 2010. Sense & Sustainability: Educating for a Circular Economy. Ellen McArthur Foundation. Web. 27 Mar 2015.

  • Xing, Y., and D. Sims. 2012. Leadership, Daoist Wu Wei and reflexivity: Flow, self-protection and excuse in Chinese bank Managers’ leadership practice. Management Learning 43(1): 97–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alicia Hennig.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hennig, A. Daoism in Management. Philosophy of Management 16, 161–182 (2017).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Chinese philosophy
  • Daoism
  • Management
  • Sustainability