Leadership lessons from Confucius: the golden mean

golden mean

子曰:「中庸之為德也,其至矣乎!民鮮久矣。」
Confucius said: “Achieving the golden mean is the highest level of virtue. It’s been rare among the people for a long time.”

How many mood swings do you experience in the course of a single day? When bad news hits, do you stay calm and collected or do you have to fight to control your rising anger? How about when good news comes? Do you punch your fist in the air and give everyone around you high-fives or do you stay focused on the task at hand?

Achieving the golden mean is all about building a dispassionate mindset: one that removes your ego from how you react to whatever is happening around you. By stripping away unnecessary emotional and intellectual baggage from your thoughts, it enables you to see the world more clearly and prevents you from swinging to wild extremes.

Achieving the golden mean isn’t easy of course. No wonder Confucius notes that, “It’s been rare among the people for a long time.” But that only makes the pursuit of it even more worthwhile.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 29 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) The term 中庸 (zhōngyōng) literally means “central ordinary” so it’s probably no surprise that it has caused endless scratching of heads among commentators and translators of the Analects. One of the most common English definitions of the term is Burton Watson’s “Doctrine of the Mean”, probably for the simple reason that it has a much grander ring to it. Alternatives include the “Constant Mean”, “Middle Way”, or even “Focusing the Familiar”. Since Confucius didn’t take the trouble to provide clear definition of it either, that task was left to his only grandson Zisi (子思), who wrote the eponymous book on the subject that was subsequently adopted as one of the four Confucian classics.

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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