Leadership lessons from Confucius: real world experience

real world experience

The Grand Steward asked Zigong: “Your master’s a true sage, isn’t he? How come he’s mastered so many menial skills?” Zigong replied: “Heaven indeed made him a sage, but it also gave him many different talents.” 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 lots of different menial skills. Is it necessary for a leader to master so many menial 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) Confucius has no truck with Zigong’s attempt to defend him against the anonymous Chief Steward’s barbed criticism of his humble background. Although Confucius had to take on a number of menial jobs to support his family, including working as a warehouse clerk and stockman, as a young man, he doesn’t believe that the skills he picked up along the way are necessary for becoming a leader. As he says in 2.12, “A leader isn’t a vessel.” In other words, a leader focuses on the cultivation of their conduct and character rather than the development of a specialist skill.

(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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *