Leadership Lessons from Confucius: proper reverence

proper reverence

曾子曰:「慎終追遠,民德歸厚矣。」
Zengzi said: “When the dead are shown proper reverence and the memory of distant ancestors is kept alive, the people’s virtue is at its highest.” (1) (2)

It can be very easy to take the culture of your organization for granted. But showing respect for its history and the people who established and built it is vital for forming a common bond among everyone who joins it.

If you ignore your organization’s past, you risk losing sight of its overall purpose and destroying it through reckless expansion into areas that it isn’t equipped to handle. By disregarding long-held core values, you can also send the organization into decline by letting behavioral, product, and service standards slip – not to mention staff morale.

Maintaining respect for your organization’s past doesn’t mean that its culture cannot evolve to meet the needs of the present and the future. The key is to maintain a sense of balance by making sure that any changes you implement are consistent with the organization’s practices and values. Big Bangs involving mass lay-offs and plant closures may lead to fawning analyst comments and leaps in the stock price in the short term, but they rarely succeed in the long term.

Better to build on the foundation that has already been established rather than try to blow it up and start from zero again.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) One of the most cohesive aspects of Chinese culture has been its reverence towards ancestors. This tradition remains as important today as it has for thousands of years.

(2) This chapter features the term 德 (dé) for the first time. This is commonly translated as “virtue”. When describing a leader, it can also mean “charismatic” or “powerful” in a moral sense.

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

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