Leadership lessons from Confucius: change for change’s sake

change for change's sake

Confucius said: “According to ritual, the ceremonial cap should be made of hemp; these days it’s made of silk. This is more economical and I follow the general practice. According to ritual, you should make your bow at the bottom of the steps; nowadays people make their bow at the top of the steps. This is arrogant, and even though it goes against the general practice I make my bow at that bottom of the steps.” (1)

Times change. So do fashions and styles. How to decide which traditions to maintain and which ones to jettison in favor of something more modern?

Confucius was willing to accept the replacement of hemp caps with much cheaper silk ones for use in ritual because they were difficult and time-consuming to make and the substitution of one material for another made no difference to the essential meaning of the ceremony.

When it came to attending an audience with a ruler, however, he was unwilling to countenance any changes because he believed that delaying his bow until he reached the top of the steps represented a fundamental breach of etiquette – not to mention a shocking lack of respect.

Although Confucius was pragmatic enough to accept minor changes to the external forms of rituals, he was strongly opposed to ones that he believed violated the basic principles underlying them. As tempting as it may be to move with the times, don’t allow yourself to compromise on your core values and mission. Change for change’s sake can easily make you lose sight of them.


This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) According to the traditional ritual convention, a ceremonial cap was an extremely elaborate item made of 2,400 hemp threads sewn together using highly intricate stitching. No wonder even Confucius saw no point in maintaining this particular practice.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.

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