Leadership wasn’t a theoretical concept to Confucius. It was rather a set of qualities and behaviors that you as a leader (君子/jūnzǐ) should cultivate in order to guide your thoughts and actions.
In Book 1 of The Analects, he sets about the monumental task of identifying and explaining these leadership qualities with this famous question that he asks (and answers) in the very first chapter: “Isn’t it the mark of a leader to go unacknowledged without letting it annoy you?”
His point, of course, is that as a leader you should persevere with your mission no matter what other people think of you and without any expectation of receiving any financial rewards or social recognition for it. Like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers you should be willing to toil away in obscurity because you passionately believe in the value of your work and refuse to be discouraged by criticism from others.
With this comment Confucius is possibly also referring to his own failure to achieve his lifelong dream of securing a senior official position that would enable him to restore China to the glory days of the early Zhou Dynasty. For all his great intelligence and learning, none of the feudal rulers Confucius visited in search of employment ever saw fit to recognize his talents by hiring him. Even his teachings only became popular hundreds of years after his death.
In Chapter 8, Confucius goes on to identify seriousness of purpose as another key quality of a leader, because you will lack dignity and “a solid foundation for learning” without it.
In the same passage, Confucius adds loyalty and trustworthiness into the mix as well as the ability to surround yourself with the right people who are not afraid to challenge you rather than “yes men”. Recognizing that even the best leaders are only human, he finishes off this exhaustive list with strong advice that you shouldn’t be afraid to correct your mistakes: “Hold loyalty and trustworthiness as your highest principles; don’t make friends with people who are not your equal; when you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to correct yourself.”
Confucius reprises these two latter themes in Chapter 14 when he says that a leader “keeps the company of others who possess the way to make sure that he stays on the right path.” He also adds that a leader should be decisive and discrete: “quick to act but careful in what he says.”
Last, but certainly not least, Confucius cautions that as a leader you should stay humble and keep your feet on the ground especially if success does arrive. As he so eloquently puts it the same chapter, a leader “eats leader eats without filling his stomach” and “chooses a home without demanding comfort”. Although he was by no means a member of the hair-shirt brigade, Confucius heartily detested the wanton extravagance of his era’s 1%!
Boiled down to much plainer bullet-point language, Confucius defines the following key leadership qualities in Book 1 :
Don’t give up
Don’t expect recognition or rewards
Take your work seriously
Surround yourself with the right people
Recognize and correct your mistakes
That’s certainly enough to think about for now. But rest assured that there is plenty more to come on the subject of leadership in the remaining nineteen books of The Analects!