Leadership Lessons from Confucius: vision and core values

core values

子曰:「三年無改於父之道,可謂孝矣。」
Confucius said: “If after three years a man has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.”

Do you know the vision and core values of the organization that you work for? Although you might be able to dredge up a few garbled phrases from your memory banks, the likely answer to this question is no. There’s no shame in this. After all, you have more pressing issues to think about such as hitting your quarterly sales numbers or making sure your new product ships on time.

The irony is that although companies are willing to spend a fortune on bringing in “experts” to craft fancy vision statements and core value declarations, they invest much less time and money in promoting them unless you count putting up a few posters on the walls, adding a page to the company website, and including a brief obligatory mention in senior executive’s speeches at major corporate events. It’s no wonder, therefore, that very few staff pay attention to the subject. Why should they care if the leadership only pays lip service to the idea?

Confucius was a master of communicating his vision for the world and the core values that underpinned it. Throughout the Analects you see him hammering away at the same set of themes in conversations with his students, followers, government officials, members of the ruling class, and even the rulers themselves. Sometimes, as in the case, you even see him repeating himself (1) in his zeal to make sure that everyone understood his message.

Repetition is vital if you are to communicate your vision and core values effectively – though you should take the time to present it in new and interesting ways to ensure that people don’t get bored with it!

Living up to your vision and core values is even more important if people are going to take the seriously and follow your example. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Confucius put his life on hold following the death of his mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) to observe the traditional three-year mourning period. Like any good leader, therefore, he was able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Like any good leader, however, Confucius was also human. Despite his passionate espousal of family values, his marriage with his wife Qiguan (官氏) wasn’t an especially happy one and may have culminated in divorce. His relationship with his only son Boyu (伯魚), or Kong Li (孔鲤) as he is more formally known, is said to have been quite distant as well.

Just because Confucius failed to live up to his own vision and core values doesn’t mean that you or the organization you work for should deny the need for them. The key is to make sure that you are committed to acting on them every day rather than leaving them hidden in some drawer or closet to be dusted off and displayed only on special occasions.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.

(1) The quotation in this chapter can also be found in Chapter 11 of Book 1 of the Analects.

I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.

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