Leadership lessons from Confucius: elitist thinking?

elitist thinking

Confucius said: “The common people can be made to follow the way, but they cannot be made to understand it.” (1)

Never underestimate the knowledge and wisdom of the people you lead. You may think that you have much greater experience and expertise than they do, but if you take the time to listen to them closely you’ll quickly find out that they have their fingers on the pulse every bit as much as you do. Perhaps even more so.


This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

(1) There is a lot of controversy surrounding the meaning of this passage as a result of the ambiguity of the language and syntax and concerns from some scholars about how it reflects on Confucius’s character. One interpretation is that Confucius is guilty of elitist thinking here by advising rulers to impose their way of governance on the common people without having to explain their reasons for implementing it because the people were too ignorant to understand it in any case. Another more generous interpretation involves the highly creative (some would say convoluted) use of punctuation as follows:「民可使, 由之; 不可使, 知之。」This would mean something like: “If the common people are ready to be employed, give them a free hand in their work; if they are not ready to be employed, teach them instead.” A third alternative would be something like this: “The common people can be enticed or persuaded to follow the way, but they cannot be persuaded or enticed to understand it.” Take your pick!

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.

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