Leadership in the Analects

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If I were ever asked to choose one single word that sums up the main theme of the Analects, I would unhesitatingly opt for “leadership”. Through his teachings, Confucius was attempting to educate the ruling elite of his time how to create and govern a just and fair society that would ensure peace, prosperity, and harmony for all.

Confucius targeted two classes of leaders with his teachings. The first consisted of the motley crew of hereditary dukes, lords, and princelings that ruled the various fragmented states of China during his lifetime. To these, he promoted the ideal of virtuous leadership (德/), a form of moral power through which the ruler radiated his influence by setting a shining example of ethical behavior that his people would spontaneously follow without any form of compulsion.

Like all of Confucius’s teachings (with the possible exception of his advocacy of universal education), this was by no means a new idea but it did attest to his belief that the essence of leadership lies within the actions of the individual. To use a more modern cliché based on the same line of thinking, if a person only talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk, he has no right to expect other people to follow him.

I’ll be writing more about virtuous leadership in future posts. If you are interested in learning more about it now, please click on this link.

Confucius applied a similar principle to the second category of people he aimed at with his teachings: namely, the members of the educated elite, often referred to as scholar-officials or knights (士/shì), who served as ministers and officials in the bureaucracy, managed the estates of the feudal families, and ran their own businesses (sometimes all at the same time). To these men (and I emphasize that they were men), he advocated the ideal of the 君子/jūnzǐ – a term that I have translated as “leader” but one that has also been rendered as “gentleman”, “nobleman”, “superior man”, “man of superior order”, “man of virtue”, “ideal man”, “cultivated man”, “exemplary man”, “refined man”, and no doubt a host of other alternatives.

In Confucius’s eyes, the leader was a pillar of society who, like a virtuous ruler, set the right moral example that people within his circle of influence would automatically follow. The Analects are littered with passages in which Confucius and his disciples attempt to define the qualities of a leader as well as quite a number of anecdotes showing good and poor examples of leadership behavior. Despite their sometimes archaic language, the advice that many of them contain is as relevant today as when they were first spoken. I’ll start exploring the ones found in Book 1 in my next entry.

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