Leadership Lessons from Confucius: character counts

character counts

Confucius said: “A young man should be devoted to his parents at home and respectful to his elders outside it. He should be cautious and truthful, love everyone, but only develop close relationships with good people. If he still has energy to spare after all this, he should study the classics.”

How to prepare the young generation for a fast-moving and turbulent world? This was just as daunting a challenge in Confucius’s day as it is in ours due to the politically and socially unstable times that he lived in. Finding suitable jobs was just as tough as it is nowadays for educated young people without family connections, and there was probably a much greater chance of them being caught up in violence and wars as the different states in China vied with each other for supremacy.

Confucius saw adherence to the conventions and practices of filial devotion as the first step in forming a young man’s character and preparing him for the challenges ahead. Once the young man has learned how to conduct himself properly at home, he is ready to step out into the big bad world and interact effectively with his peers and respected members of the community.

Confucius recognizes how challenging this process can be when he concludes that if the young man “still has energy to spare after all this, he should study the classics.” Naturally, he isn’t saying that young men shouldn’t study. He is just underlining his belief that character building is the most important part of a young man’s education. If he doesn’t pick up fundamental values such as honesty, self-discipline, and respect for others at an early age, he is unlikely to become an effective member of society later no matter how many books he may have read.

Even though we can, with the benefit of hindsight, question some elements of Confucius’s teachings about filial devotion, particularly his focus on the male sex, the basic thrust of his argument here still applies. While paper qualifications are very important, character counts much more in achieving long-term success.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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