Leadership lessons from Confucius: gracious but serious

gracious but serious

子溫而厲,威而不猛,恭而安。
Confucius was gracious but serious; commanding but not severe; respectful but at ease.

The problem with optimizing a single aspect of your behavior is that very quickly the law of diminishing returns will kick in and ultimately your efforts will backfire. Take graciousness as an example. Although it is of course important to be polite to people, if you take your politeness too far they will soon regard your behavior as fake or even a sign of weakness.

A much more effective approach is to pair two complementary aspects together into a duality as Confucius does in this passage and aim to strike a balance between them. In this way, he is gracious enough to be polite but serious enough to show that he is ready to get down to business. He is also commanding enough to show that he is no fool but friendly enough to engage in a constructive conversation. Finally, while he is respectful to the person he is meeting he has the self-confidence to show that he is not overawed by them no matter how important they think they may be.

This concept of dualities (sometimes labeled as “polarities” or [inaccurately] “opposites”) is explored extensively in ancient Chinese philosophy, most notably by Laozi in the Daodejing. It provides a very useful way of viewing the world and making sure that you stick to the middle way rather than swing too far to extremes. You only have to look at how technology is driving ever greater levels of social, political, economic, and ideological polarization to understand how important it is that adopt a more balanced approach to its development.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 37 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

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

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