Leadership Lessons from Confucius: like the Pole Star

moral power

子曰:「為政以德,譬如北辰,居其所而眾星共之。」
The Master said: “Governing by the power of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star, which remains fixed in place while all the other stars orbit respectfully around it.”

As a leader, your most important task is to set a shining example to the people around you through your virtue (德/dé), a term which can be extended to mean ethical or moral power.

If you walk the walk, people will gravitate towards you and readily follow you. But if you just talk the talk, they will quickly lose their confidence in you and question your credibility and commitment.

As a leader, your every word and action will be closely scrutinized. By setting the right example, people will instinctively strive to follow your example and meet the high standards you set. But if you fail to live up to your stated vision and values, people will switch off and do just enough to get by.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) The Pole Star is the brightest star on the northern horizon; all the others circle around it. In the same way, Confucius believed that an ethical ruler would radiate his moral goodness to the all the people in his state so that they would all live and work together in harmony. This is a similar idea to the Daoist concept of “effortless action” (無為/wúwéi) – though Confucius doesn’t explore it with anywhere near as much enthusiasm as Laozi does in the Daodejing.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing.

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