Leadership lessons from Confucius: never give up

Leadership Lessons from Confucius

子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」
The Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and repeatedly apply the lessons you’ve learned? Isn’t it a joy to have friends visit from afar? Isn’t it the mark of a leader to go unacknowledged without letting it annoy you?”(1)

How do you become a leader? This is the central theme of the teachings of Confucius as recorded in The Analects. The answer is by studying the core principles hard and iterating the lessons you have learned from them so enthusiastically that they become an unconscious part of who you are and how you conduct yourself. There are no magical shortcuts in this process, though that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be an enjoyable one. There are no guaranteed earthly or heavenly rewards for following it either. You pursue this path because it is the right thing to do, not because there is a pot of gold at the end of it or any likes or retweets along the way. (2)

What is a leader? This is a question that we still haven’t found the “right” answer to over 2,000 years after Confucius lived. For the sage, the idea was embodied by the term 君子/jūnzǐ (3), which is often translated into English as “gentleman”. But rather than attempting to define what a leader is, Confucius focused his prodigious talents and energies on exploring how a leader should act. As much as he loved talking about the core principles that underlie his concept of leadership, he was far more interested in figuring out how to apply them to the messy realities of daily life.

Judging by the colossal blunders that he made during his own lifetime, Confucius found it as difficult as the rest of us to translate leadership principles into the appropriate actions. But his dogged insistence on sticking to the right path even during his darkest times of exile teaches us the single most important leadership lesson from Confucius: never give up.

Notes

This is a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 1 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) Some commentators claim that this was the standard greeting that Confucius gave to his new students. Although this is of course impossible to prove, it’s certainly plausible given Confucius’s penchant for ritual and the eloquence with which it encapsulates the sage’s approach to learning: namely, the importance of combining theory with practice.

(2) Unlike Christianity, for example, Confucius and the deep well ancient of Chinese philosophical teachings he draws from doesn’t offer any prospect of rewards for good behavior. Even if you lead an exemplary life, you remain subject to the vagaries of fate. The only control you have is over how you react to whatever it happens to throw at you. If you become wealthy that’s great, but don’t confuse your riches with virtue. By the same token, if you live in poverty, don’t conflate this with degeneracy.

(3) As with so many terms that you come across in The Analects, it is impossible to come up with a perfect English translation of 君子/jūnzǐ. Although “gentleman” is very close in spirit to the meaning of the word as Confucius and his contemporaries understood it, I would argue that the term has become too archaic for modern English usage. Just like a 君子/jūnzǐ in Confucius’s times, I view a “leader” as someone who is regarded as a pillar of the community whose status is defined more by their integrity, professionalism, and charisma than their formal position in any hierarchy. The leader is thus a role model who draws people toward them because of the example they set rather than a dictator who imposes their will on others.

The big difference of course is that Confucius only saw men as worthy of becoming a leader; he probably never even conceived that women would be capable of assuming such a role. Thankfully, we have moved on since then.

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