Leadership lessons from Confucius: the good old days

good old days

子曰:「齊一變,至於魯;魯一變,至於道。」
Confucius said: “With a single reform, the state of Qi could reach the level of the state of Lu; with a single reform, the state of Lu could reach the way.”

There’s no going back to the good old days! They were never that great anyway. They just look better from a distance using the rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia gives you.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t seek to learn from the past. It provides a rich source of inspiration and a solid foundation upon which to build the future. Just don’t make the mistake of attempting to recreate it. The world is changing at an ever-faster rate. Rather than fighting to resist this, focus on how you can embrace it.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) Confucius based his teachings upon the dream of returning China to a mythical Golden Age just after the founding of the Zhou dynasty in 1040 BCE when his hero the Duke of Zhou instituted reforms that enabled the country to reach the apex of civilization. By the time Confucius was alive (551–479 BCE), the dynasty had declined into a patchwork quilt of feudal states that were vying with each other for supremacy. Although Qi was the richest and most powerful of these states, Confucius regarded it as inferior to his home state of Lu. This was because Lu was the last bastion of traditional Zhou culture and thus allegedly had more sophisticated institutions and a more advanced ethical and intellectual environment. Given his repeated and often vitriolic criticisms of the corruption and depravity of the ruling class of Lu, his claim that the state was just a single reform away from returning to its previous greatness seems absurd. The only context in which it makes sense is if Confucius is hinting that the only way for Lu to take such a momentous step would be to put him in charge of the government of the state!

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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