Leadership lessons from Confucius: poetic inspiration

poetry

子曰:「興於詩,立於禮,成於樂。」
Confucius said: “Find inspiration with the Book of Songs; establish character with ritual; achieve perfection with music.” (1)

If you’re serious about inspiring creativity and innovation in your team or organization, you could do a lot worse than making poetry a key element of your efforts. Poetry not only teaches us how to express ourselves more eloquently; it can also give us a lifelong love of language and literature. Its ability to encapsulate complex and often conflicting emotions in powerful and evocative phrases provides powerful fuel for our imaginations – not to mention a powerful antidote to anodyne official language.

Just like poetry lacking meter and form, creativity without processes and conventions to regulate its development delivers limited impact. Ritual plays a vital role in helping us to channel our wild notions into practical applications that deliver meaningful results. Ideas are of zero worth if there is no way of implementing them.

When the ritual is working smoothly, true magic starts to happen. Poetry metamorphoses into music as everyone comes together in perfect harmony to work towards a common goal.

Confucius regarded music as the apex of human civilization – the ultimate manifestation of our thoughts, morality, and actions. This is why he saw it as the final step towards perfection.

Notes

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

(1) The Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) is the oldest existing collection of ancient Chinese ceremonial hymns and folk songs and one of the so-called “Five Classics” (五經/ wǔjīng). It features a total of 305 works dating back to the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE, many of which were performed as part of ritual ceremonies held by the ruling and aristocratic families.

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

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