Leadership lessons from Confucius: on tokenism


Confucius said: “If someone has no goodness, what can they have to do with ritual? If someone has no goodness, what can they have to do with music?” (1) (2)

Going to church every Sunday morning doesn’t make you a good Christian unless you’re committed to learning and applying the values that are being taught at the service. Not even the most inspiring hymns will be able to stir your soul if your only reason for being there is to make yourself look good in front of the community. You might as well stay in bed at home for all the good it will do you.

In the same way, calling or attending a meeting at work is of no value if your only goal is to show how important you are. There has to be a deeper meaning and purpose to the event or activity. Your time and energy are too precious to waste on mere tokenism.


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

(1) Confucius is continuing with his criticism of the so-called Three Families, the Jisun (季孫) or Ji, Mengsun (孟孫) or Meng, and Shusun (叔孫) or Shu clans, for subverting the meaning of traditional ritual ceremonies to boost their social status and political power in the state of Lu.

(2) Confucius regarded classical ceremonial music known as雅樂/yǎyuè as the very embodiment of civilized values. Predictably, he was much less favorably disposed towards more popular forms, going as far as expressing his loathing of the allegedly licentious melodies of the state of Zheng for corrupting classical music (惡鄭聲之亂雅樂也) in Chapter 18 of Book 17.

I took this image at the Beijing Great Bell Temple. You can read more about it here.

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