Leadership Lessons from Confucius: self-reflection

self-reflection

曾子曰:「吾日三省吾身,為人謀而不忠乎?與朋友交而不信乎?傳不習乎?」
Zengzi said: “I examine myself three times every day. Have I been true to other people’s interests when acting on their behalf? Have I been sincere in my interactions with friends? Have I practiced what I have been taught?” (1)

Introspection or self-reflection is critical for a leader. It can be all too easy to lose touch with reality when you’re in a cocoon surrounded by people whose careers and livelihoods depend on making sure that you’re kept satisfied. Very few people have the courage to call you out if they think you’re making the wrong decision or going beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior.

In Chapter 4 of Book 1 of the Analects, Confucius’s follower Zengzi lists three questions that he asks himself every day to make sure that he remains on the straight and narrow. Note that with the first two, he doesn’t just reflect on his own actions but also what impact they may have had on other people. Has he been “true” to their interests and has he been “sincere” in his interactions with them? In other words, has he placed his own self-interest above that of the people around him?

These are important questions to ask yourself. As a leader, you don’t operate in a vacuum. The people around you will take their cues from how you conduct yourself. If your actions show that you don’t live up to the commitments to others, you shouldn’t be surprised if they follow your example.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) This chapter features the first references to the values of the loyalty (忠/zhōng) and trustworthiness (信/xìn). You can read more about them here and here.

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

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