Leadership lessons from Confucius: the path to virtue

path to virtue

子曰:「君子懷德,小人懷土;君子懷刑,小人懷惠。」
Confucius said: “A leader pursues virtue; a petty person pursues land. A leader pursues justice; a petty person pursues favors.”

What is your goal in life? To accumulate material comforts or to pursue a higher path?

Confucius was, of course, a proponent of the latter course with his advocacy of a path of rigorous self-cultivation in order to achieve a sublime state of goodness: one on which you act in the interest of everyone rather than just yourself.

The problem is that even when you start out with the purest of motives, it can be very difficult to avoid conflating your personal interests with those of society as a whole. Young political firebrands who build their careers out of fighting for social justice have a nasty habit of turning into brutal dictators as they accumulate ever greater levels of power. Idealistic startups that promise to change the world find ever more creative interpretations of their mission statements as they fight to expand their market share and political influence.

While the path to virtue is paved with good intentions, it can all too easily collapse into a pit of greed, corruption, and pettiness. Should you decide to pursue it, remain constantly aware of the challenges and pitfalls you are likely to encounter on the way.

Note

This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.

I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.

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