Leadership lessons from Confucius: native substance and cultural refinement

natural substance

Confucius said: “When native substance wins out over cultural refinement, you get the coarseness of a peasant; when cultural refinement wins out over native substance, you get the pedantry of a clerk. Only when native substance and cultural refinement are in balance do you get a leader.”

There’s no doubt that weight-training is great for making you healthier. A regular program enables you to build up both physical and mental strength through exercise and discipline and can provide a platform for achieving more than you imagined possible in your personal and professional life.

The problem comes if you take it too far and become so obsessed with hitting your ever-escalating goals that you become muscle-bound. Sure, you may impress your growing legion of admirers in the gym with your amazing feats of strength, but if you’re not careful you risk paying a heavy price in terms of losing your speed and agility – not to mention storing up some potentially serious physical problems later when your body protests at its brutal treatment.

As with so many aspects of life, the key is to take a balanced approach to your physical health by making sure that you exercise all your muscles and maintain a proper diet. The same principle applies to your mental health too. While looking great may provide a temporary boost to your self-esteem and Instagram likes, it can also lead to long-term feelings of insecurity and inadequacy as others inevitably elbow you off the stage.

In other words, make sure your quest for style doesn’t outstrip your development of substance. You need to have both of them in equal measure.


This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 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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