Leadership lessons from Confucius: making the most of every moment

every moment

子曰:「居上不寬,為禮不敬,臨喪不哀,吾何以觀之哉?」
Confucius said: “How can I bear to even contemplate someone who lacks tolerance when in high office, reverence when performing ritual, and grief when in mourning?”

How do you make the most of your day? Are you warm and friendly towards the people you work with or do you only talk with them about business? Are you fully “present” when you’re at meeting or are you distracted? Do you react calmly when things go wrong or do you explode in anger?

When Confucius talks about ritual, his key message is about the need to make the most of every moment by taking the most appropriate action. Screaming at one of your staff for making a mistake may provide a cathartic release, but it won’t solve the problem for you. Keeping one eye on your phone while sitting at a meeting might help break the boredom, but it won’t help you figure out what the person who is speaking is trying to say. And hiding your emotions at a difficult time might make you look tough, but it won’t help you process the grief you may be experiencing.

Although some of the withering criticisms that Confucius makes of his contemporaries in Book 3 of the Analects may appear absurd, he was using them to point out that the extravagance and flouting of social norms and conventions demonstrated by the most powerful clans in Lu posed a real threat to the stability and cohesion of the state. As he asks rhetorically in Chapter 1, if the head of the Ji Family is capable of usurping a royal prerogative by using eight rows of dancers to perform in the ceremonies at his ancestral temple, “what isn’t he capable of?”

This passage marks the end of Book 3. To learn how Confucius put ritual into practice in his own daily life, check out my translation of Book 10 here.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 26 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

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

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