Wu Wei (无为) lies at the heart of Confucianism. It lies at the heart of Taoism. And it lies at the heart of Zen Buddhism. In each case, the meaning is different.
Wu Wei: No action.
Coming from a western mindset, it is one of those terms that is difficult to grapple with. In our cultural mindset, we see ourselves defined by our ego, an ego that acts upon the world to achieve goals. Without our ego, we are nothing.
Confucius talked about wu wei as the supreme behavior of an emperor as they lead their nation. Where there is a silent guiding. Where a harmonious balance can be achieved.
Lao Tzu spoke of wu wei as a way of being. Where we live our lives as if floating down the river. Observing, accepting, letting go. But all with a clarity of intention.
In Zen, the meaning of wu wei went further, referring to the nothingness of nirvana, the luminescent emptiness of non-being. That mystery which is said to lie at the center of the ensō.
When wu wei leadership is practiced in a company or a classroom, action is gently guided and learning is actively supported. Motivation is from purpose, not as a response to fear. The dynamics are fluid. The systems are complex. There is a vitality that is palpable. But there is no ego – an embodiment of servant leadership, where leadership seeks not to control, but to empower those who they lead.