Leadership Lessons from Confucius: continuity and change

continuity and change

子張問:「十世可知也?」子曰:「殷因於夏禮,所損益可知也;周因於殷禮,所損益可知也。其或繼周者,雖百世,可知也。」
Zizhang asked: “Can we predict the future ten generations from now?” The Master said: “The Yin dynasty adopted the rites of the Xia dynasty; we know what was dropped and what was added. The Zhou dynasty borrowed from the rites of the Yin dynasty: we know what was dropped and what was added. If the Zhou dynasty has successors, we know what they will be like, even a hundred generations from now.”

How to manage continuity and change? This is a key challenge for any leader. What elements do you need to add to your organization so that it’s ready to meet the challenges of the future? What elements do you need to drop that are holding it back? Perhaps most important, what are the core values you need to retain to ensure its long-term resilience? Without such an anchor, your organization will undoubtedly veer off course and crash into the rocks.

The Xia, Yin, and Zhou were the first three dynasties recorded in Chinese history. The Xia Dynasty dates from between 2070 and 1600 BCE; the Yin or Shang Dynasty ran from 1600 to 1046 BCE; and the Zhou Dynasty stretched from 1045 and 220 BCE. Much of the Zhou Dynasty was characterized by periods of extreme instability during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, which took place from 722- 481 BCE and 403 – 221 BCErespectively.

Confucius lived during the latter part of the Spring and Autumn Period from 551 to 479 BCE. He dreamed of bringing order to the chaos around him by reviving the values and traditions of the past in the same way that his hero the Duke of Zhou laid the foundations for the consolidation of Zhou Dynasty five hundred years before him.

Although Confucius failed to achieve this goal during his lifetime, he laid the foundation for future recovery by injecting new life into the core values that that have enabled Chinese culture to last for millennia – far longer than any of its global counterparts.

Are you prepared to pay the price of short-term pain for long-term gain like Confucius did? That’s a question you should think about before embarking on your next transformation initiative. The challenge of managing continuity and change isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

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

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