Leadership lessons of Confucius: not a vessel

not a mere receptacle

Confucius said: “A leader isn’t a vessel.”

How can I add value? This is the key question that you need to repeatedly ask yourself as you go about your daily work. As Confucius points out in this well-known passage, a leader is much more than a vessel such as a cooking pot in the kitchen or a receptacle on an altar. Your role is not to passively absorb information but to actively sift and share it with the members of your team so that they can develop their abilities more effectively.

This is a particularly critical responsibility in this period of rapid change that we are living in. How to prepare both yourself and your people for a time when machines take over many of the routine tasks that you all handle as part of your daily work? How, as I mentioned yesterday, to inspire more creative and critical thinking among everyone so that you can take advantage of the new opportunities that will be enabled by automation and AI rather than being thrown on the scrap heap?

Confucius saw education as the key to preparing people to deal with the challenges of the future. He opened the first recorded private school in China, and reputedly accepted any student who wanted to learn regardless of whether they could afford to attend it. This was a revolutionary step in a feudal society dominated by hereditary families, laying the foundation for the establishment of the civil service examination system during the Han Dynasty that was – in theory at least – open to everyone.

Just as revolutionary was the importance he placed on encouraging his students to focus on the practical application of the principles and values they studied in the ancient Chinese classics rather than simply memorizing and regurgitating them.

With these actions, Confucius showed that he wasn’t a mere vessel. Now’s as good a time as any to ask if you can say the same about yourself. 


This article features a translation of Chapter 12 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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