Leadership lessons from Confucius: real world experience

real world experience

The Grand Steward asked Zigong: “Your master’s a true sage, isn’t he? He’s skilled in so many things.” Zigong replied: “Heaven indeed made him a sage, but he also happens to have many different skills.” When he heard of this, Confucius said: “What does the Grand Steward know about me? In my youth I was poor, so I had to learn a number of menial skills. Does a leader usually have so many different skills? I don’t think so.”

There’s no better preparation for adult life than a part-time or temporary job waiting tables, flipping burgers, valeting cars, doing construction, or working on a production line. You can learn far more in few months from that about how the world really works than studying two years for an MBA in a fancy college. It’s only though practical experience that you can understand the challenges of working with other people from diverse backgrounds, dealing with prickly customers, and meeting seemingly impossible deadlines.

Even when you have been fortunate enough to make the move into a more comfortable office, it pays to spend as much time as you can with your front line staff and customers in order to stay in touch with the operational realities. Even though virtual communication is easier and more convenient than ever before, it will never replace the insights you can get from real face-to-face interaction.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) As a young man, Confucius took on a number of menial jobs to support his family, including acting as a warehouse clerk and stockman. He seems justifiably proud of this real world experience.  

(2) You can read more about Zigong, one of Confucius’s most loyal followers, here.

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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