Leadership lessons from Confucius: achieving a state of flow

flow

子曰:「君子無所爭,必也射乎!揖讓而升,下而飲。其爭也君子。」
Confucius said: “A leader does not engage in competition. But if you can’t avoid it, you should practice archery. You bow and exchange courtesies with your opponent before entering the range and enjoy drinks with him after leaving it. Even when engaged in competition, you remain a leader.” (1)

Like archery, leadership involves achieving such a state of flow that every action you take comes so naturally that you don’t even have to think about it.

Reaching such a state requires constant iteration of the process so that it is imprinted in your mind and muscle memory. Just as the first step of an archery contest is to greet your opponent, the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning could be to meditate, make your bed, or brew a cup of coffee.

It doesn’t really matter what the specific action is. What’s important is that you save precious brain cycles by carrying it out in exactly the same way every time so that you can free up your mind to focus on the more important issues that you need to deal with.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Archery was a long-established ritual among the ruling class of China long before Confucius was born and was one of the “six arts” that an aspiring young leader was supposed to master. The others were ritual, music, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. Confucius also talks about archery in Chapter 16 of Book 3. 

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing. You can read more about it here.

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