Analects Book 2: on leadership


In Book 2 of the Analects, Confucius continues his exploration of the nature of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ) with a series of comments on the intellectual capabilities required by one.

He kicks off this exploration in Chapter XII with his famous observation that “a leader is not a vessel.” By this he means that a leader should be a well-rounded generalist steeped in the principles and values of the classics rather than a narrow-minded technocrat. In other words, a leader is someone who is capable of understanding the big picture; he leaves it to others to pursue more specialist subjects.

The ability to think objectively and holistically is a key element in understanding the big picture. In Chapter XIV, Confucius hammers home this point when he says, “A leader looks at a question from every perspective.” “A small-minded man,” in contrast, “looks at a question from his own perspective.”

In Chapter XV, he further emphasizes the importance of taking an objective approach by saying: “To study without thinking is pointless. To think without studying is perilous.” In the next chapter, he adds: “To attack a question from the wrong starting point is harmful.”

Strong critical thinking skills developed through extensive study of the classics are therefore essential in a leader. Without a thorough grounding in fundamental principles and values, it is impossible for him to analyze any particular situation he may encounter and respond to it appropriately.

Setting the right example to others is the final attribute of a leader that Confucius points to in Book 2. When the disciple Zigong asks him what constitutes a leader in Chapter XIII, he replies: “Someone who practices what he preaches.”

The ability to talk the talk only gets you so far; to become a true leader, you have to be able to walk the walk as well.

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