Confucius lived during turbulent times of great political and social instability, in which the various feudal states that comprised the decaying Zhou dynasty were vying with each other for supremacy and the aristocracies within each state were fighting with the hereditary ruling families to gain more influence and power.
Confucius looked back to the rulers of the Western Zhou, the golden age of the Zhou dynasty that ran from 1050 – 771 BC, for inspiration on how to restore stability to his own age. The answer, he believed, lay in implementing a model of “leadership by virtue” in which the ruler set such a compelling example of judicious conduct that his people would inevitably follow it without having to be goaded by the threat of punishment.
This is the principle that lies behind Confucius’s famous comment in the opening chapter of Book 2 of the Analects when he says, “Governing by the power of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star.” Rather than attempting to command and control his kingdom, a ruler should create the right environment for its people to thrive in by providing a shining point of light “which remains fixed in place while all the other stars orbit respectfully around it.”
In Chapter 3, Confucius expands his thoughts on virtuous leadership by stating: “If you lead through laws and regulations and maintain order through punishments, people will avoid them but won’t develop a sense of shame. If you lead through virtue and keep them in line with the rites, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you.”
Similar sentiments are echoed towards the end of the book. In Chapter 19, Confucius tells Duke Ai, the titular ruler of the state of Lu, that in order to win the support of the people he should promote “the upright and place them above the crooked”. In the following chapter, he goes on to tell Ji Kangzi, the real power behind the throne of Lu, that if he treats the people with dignity “they will be respectful” and if he promotes capable people and teaches ones who lack ability, “they will be diligent.”
Virtuous leadership was by no means a “soft” option. It required a ruler to live up to the rigorous set of values that Confucius believed had been embodied by early Western Zhou rulers such as King Wu, the founder of the dynasty, and his brother (and hero of Confucius) the Duke of Zhou.
It also necessitated a high degree of trust on the part of the ruler that the people would respond by spontaneously following the example he set rather than seeing it as a sign of weakness that could be easily exploited.
Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the rulers that Confucius met was prepared to make this leap of faith and ignored his advice.