Leadership Lessons from Confucius: character counts

character counts

The Master said: “A young man should be filial at home and fraternal 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 the politically and socially unstable times that he lived in. Finding suitable jobs in the bureaucracy or estates of the hereditary ruling calls was just as tough as it is nowadays for educated young people without family connections, and there was at least an equal chance of being caught up in violence and wars as the different states vied with each other for supremacy.

Confucius’s answer to this question is a lot subtler than his advocacy of traditional Chinese family values might suggest at first sight. He sees adherence to the conventions and practices of filial piety as the first step in forming a young man’s character. Once he 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 tough this process is for young people 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 person’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 read.

Even though we can, with the benefit of hindsight, question some elements of Confucius’s concept of filial piety, 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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