Leadership lessons from Confucius: a two-way street

two-way street

Duke Ding asked: “How should a lord treat his ministers? How should ministers serve their lord?” Confucius replied: “A lord should treat his ministers in accordance with ritual; ministers should serve their lord with loyalty.” (1) (2)

Leadership is a two-way street. Treat your staff as you wish to be treated. Be polite and listen to what they have to say and they will be polite and listen to what you have to say. Remain calm and collected during a crisis and they will remain calm and collected.


This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Duke Ding (定公) was the twenty-fifth ruler of Lu and reigned from 510 to 495 BCE. He had a close relationship with Confucius and promoted him to a senior position in the Ministry of Justice. However, his failure to fully support Confucius in his efforts to control the notorious Three Families was one of the main factors behind Confucius’s decision to go into exile. You can read more about him here.

(2) Ritual governed the reciprocal nature of the relationship between a ruler and his ministers and people in ancient China. This was based on both parties treating each other with courtesy and mutual respect. While everyone was required to obey the ruler’s orders, these orders had to be just and reasonable. Otherwise, in theory at least, they had the right to challenge and even disregard them. Of course, maintaining the right balance was challenging. All too many rulers in the time that Confucius lived preferred to surround themselves with “yes men” who would heap praise on even their most harebrained schemes in order to curry favor and ensure advancement. By the same token, all too many ministers preferred to keep quiet rather than openly challenge even the most enlightened of rulers out of fear of being accused of disloyalty.

I took this image at the Confucius Temple on Nishan (尼山) – the hill on which, according to popular belief, Confucius was born and possibly even conceived. You can read more about Nishan here.

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