Leadership lessons from Confucius: a sense of purpose

sense of purpose

Confucius said: “You may seize the commander-in-chief of an army, but you cannot deprive the humblest person of their will.” (1) 

We all have a sense of purpose even if there are times when we don’t know what it is or it seems insignificant compared to the vaulting ambition of others.

One of the most important tasks of a leader is to help people understand what their purpose is. While some may be highly career-oriented, others may value the sense of belonging that their job brings. It’s your job to give them the space and encouragement they need to achieve their particular goals. The more you show you value them as a person, the happier they’ll be and the more they’ll contribute to your team.

From time to time, you should also take a step back and review your own sense of purpose. While you do of course have operational and career goals to meet, are these enough in themselves to keep you energized and engaged? Perhaps there are other aspects of your life that you should examine more closely to see how they fit into the overall picture. Perhaps, too, your priorities will change as you get older and (hopefully) wiser, and you will find new objectives to pursue that you weren’t ready to aim for when you were younger.


This article features a translation of Chapter 26 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) There are various interpretations of this passage. Simon Leys goes as far as to say that it champions the idea of individual free will 2,000 years before the French revolutionaries proclaimed liberty, equality, and fraternity for the common people. Given Confucius’s social conservatism, I doubt that this is the correct interpretation. It’s more likely that the “will” he is referring to is the will to follow the path of self-cultivation that he has laid out for them.

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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