Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the invisible line

invisible line

子曰:「恭而無禮則勞,慎而無禮則葸,勇而無禮則亂,直而無禮則絞。君子篤於親,則民興於仁。故舊不遺,則民不偷。」
Confucius said: “Reverence unregulated by ritual descends into indifference; cautiousness unregulated by ritual descends into timidity; boldness unregulated by ritual descends into disorder; frankness unregulated by ritual descends into hurtfulness. If a leader is devoted to their family, the people are inclined towards goodness; if a leader doesn’t forget about their old friends, the people will not shirk their obligations to others.”

Nobody’s an island. If you focus solely on improving your own performance without any form of external mediation, the law of unintended consequences will inevitably kick in and you’ll find the strengths you’ve worked so hard to hone becoming weaknesses.

The cautiousness that prevents you from making rash decisions becomes a millstone around your neck that paralyses you from taking any action at all if it’s unchecked. The boldness that gives you the confidence to take calculated risks leads to disastrous leaps of faith if it isn’t reined in. And while your plain, shoot-from-the-hip style of speaking may sound refreshing at first, it will soon be seen as mere rudeness if that’s the only way you choose to communicate with other people.

Ritual is like the governor of an engine that stops a vehicle from going too fast. It’s the invisible line where the needs of the individual meets those of the collective. Rather than waste time and energy attempting to defy it, figure out how you can harness it for the good of yourself and everyone around you.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

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

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