Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a seat facing south

a seat facing south

子曰:「雍也可使南面。」
Confucius said: “Ran Yong could take a seat facing south.” (1)

How would you describe your leadership style? Would you say it is hands-off because you empower your staff to carry out their jobs with a minimum of interference? Or would you say it is hands-on because you insist on carefully reviewing your staff’s work and making sure they follow strict procedures.

Neither style is inherently superior to the other. The one you adopt will largely depend on the specific context that you are operating in. While a lighter touch generally works well with people working in creative fields like advertising, design, editorial, and marketing, a much more precise process-oriented approach is required for engineering and manufacturing disciplines.

When Confucius says that his follower Ran Yong “could take a seat facing south” (可使南面), he is referring to the ultimate model of hands-off leadership. According to this model, all a virtuous ruler needs to do to bring peace and prosperity to his kingdom is sit on high and radiate his goodness to the people below and they will automatically follow his example.

This idea was championed by many ancient Chinese thinkers, including both Confucius and Laozi. It is often referred to as “effortless action” (無為/wúwéi). Given the terrible chaos and destruction that occurred during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, it is easy to understand why this idea of having a beacon of morality restore calm and stability through the power of their virtuous example was a highly attractive one –though the biggest obstacle of course was finding a person who could meet the exacting requirements of the role. 

Legalism, the ultimate form of hands-on leadership ultimately proved to be a more effective way of bringing peace and prosperity of a sort to China in the form of the Qin Empire. Even that, however, soon collapsed under its inherent contradictions – lasting just fifteen years from 221 to 206 BCE.

When it comes to adopting the most effective leadership style, it pays to remember that the answer lies somewhere in the middle rather than at the extremes.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) You can read more about the follower Ran Yong here.

I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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