Leadership by virtue

子曰:「道之以政,齊之以刑,民免而無恥;道之以德,齊之以禮,有恥且格。」
Confucius said: “If you rule people by laws and regulations and keep them under control through punishment, they will evade them and have no sense of shame. If you lead them by virtue and keep them in line with the rites, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you.”

Whenever politicians are faced with a problem, their instinctive response is to pass a raft of new legislative initiatives to “solve” it. While in the short term this approach may give the illusion that they are “doing something” (not to mention generating some handy headlines), in the long term it has the highly corrosive effect of widening the gap between the governing and the governed and increasing the intrusion of the state into individuals’ lives.

The approach advocated by Confucius is almost diametrically opposite to the conventional command and control model. He argued that the constant introduction of more legislation and regulations is highly counter-productive because the law of unintended consequences kicks in and people will experience no sense of shame in developing ever more creative ways of evading them. You only have to look at how the global “tax planning” industry works today to appreciate the validity of his analysis.

Confucius advocated an alternative model in which the leader establishes the right moral tone for people to follow through the act of being virtuous rather than attempting to persuade or compel them to behave in the appropriate way. By setting the right example, the leader creates a positive self-reinforcing culture that ripples through all levels of society. Laws and regulations ultimately become unnecessary because the people instinctively know how to behave appropriately and have the rites, the unwritten code of social conduct, to guide them if they are unsure of what to do.

The idea that a leader should rule by their virtue was no by means new even during Confucius’s lifetime and has its roots in the no-doubt mythical reigns of the early sage kings who laid the groundwork for building the Chinese nation. Laozi also drew his inspiration from the same source for the principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi) that he promoted in the Daodejing (道德經).

Given the growing mistrust that is emerging between the global governing elite and the rest of the world population, perhaps it’s time to revisit this ancient concept.

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