Leadership lessons from Confucius: words or actions?

words or actions?

子貢問君子。子曰:「先行其言,而後從之。」
When Zigong asked about leadership, the Master said: “First accomplish what you want to say and then say it.”

Which comes first: words or actions? If you take your cue from Silicon Valley, the answer is to shout from the rooftops that your brilliant idea is going to transform the world as we know it so that you can suck in enough investors to kickstart your dream and keep it going until one fine day it stops bleeding cash and finally starts to make money. Or gets bought by a bigger company that wants to get their hands on your technology and people or at least prevent the emergence of a potential competitor.

There’s a lot to be said for the effectiveness of the Silicon Valley model. How else would the modern high-tech industry have scaled so dramatically in the space of less than fifty years? The capital requirements for development and deployment are far too much for traditional financing methods.

However, the risks are not trifling either, not so much for the entrepreneurs themselves but the investors who back them and crucially the general public at large who are forced to pick up the costs of the inevitable busts and growing social and healthcare problems caused by incessant and ubiquitous connectivity. For all the newfound interest in the idea of a universal basic income in Silicon Valley, it’s highly unlikely that its tax-optimized titans will be the ones who’ll be picking up the tab for it.

Not surprisingly Confucius was much more conservative in this regard, advocating that you should walk the walk before going on to talk the talk. How will you be able to gain people’s confidence if you make big promises but fail to deliver on them? What better way is there of leading than setting the right example for others to follow?

There are no easy answers to the question of whether words or actions should come first. Perhaps the best response is that if you are tempted to make a huge promise, you’d better be damn sure that you’re ready to do whatever it takes to honor it.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

This is an image of the Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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