Leadership Lessons from Confucius: where to draw the line

draw the line

Youzi said: “When practicing ritual, harmony matters most. This is what made the way of the ancient kings so admirable and inspired their every action, no matter how great or small. But they also knew where to draw the line: seeking harmony for its own sake without it being regulated by ritual won’t work.” (1)

Promoting a strong esprit de corps is a key responsibility of a leader. Without high levels of cooperation between individuals and departments, silos can quickly appear in an organization and rivalries between different groups can lead to unnecessary inefficiencies and even conflicts.

But, as Youzi argues here, you shouldn’t aim to achieve harmony above everything else, particularly if it comes at the expense of ethical behavior and principles. If someone who is popular steps over the line, you shouldn’t be tempted to brush the incident under the carpet because you are afraid your decision will upset staff morale. Or if someone makes an offensive comment in a meeting you shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against them even if everyone else laughs it off.

That means knowing where to draw the line no matter what others might think of you. At times like this, leadership can be a lonely business!


This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) This chapter marks the first appearance of the term 禮 (lǐ), a central tenet of Confucius’s teachings. There is no perfect translation of this term. I’ve chosen to settle with “ritual”; though it could be alternatively rendered as “rites”, “rules”, “rules of proprietary”, “rules of behavior”, “courtesy”, “manners”, or perhaps even “etiquette” or “ethics”. In its narrowest sense, lǐ refers to the formal ceremonies that were common in Ancient China, including the extremely elaborate ones that were prescribed for interactions between the ruler and his subjects and ministers. More broadly, however, the term covers the unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth interactions between people and ensure a stable society.

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

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