Leadership lessons from Confucius: blend in or stand out?

blend in

When Confucius was in his home village, he was unassuming and warm as if at a loss for words. When he was in the ancestral temple or at court he spoke with eloquence but due caution.

Every social situation has its unwritten rules and conventions governing your dress, demeanor, and speech. Do you choose to follow them in order to blend in or to break them in order to stand out?

Confucius adopted the former approach. When among the people he grew up with, he showed his respect for them by being quiet and deferential. In public places he adopted a similarly modest approach, choosing his words carefully so as not to draw unnecessary attention to himself.

Even operating under these constraints, Confucius was highly effective in getting his ideas across. He had no need for crass stunts. When it comes to getting your voice heard, blending in can be just as impactful as standing out.


This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) In Book 10 of the Analects, we don’t hear Confucius speak at all. Instead, we watch how he is said to have conducted himself in front of relatives, friends, officials, nobles, and rulers at home, in the ancestral temple, and at court. In each situation, he acts according to the constraints of ritual (禮/lǐ) right down to the minutest details, including the posture he adopts, the way he speaks, the clothes he wears, and even the type of food he eats. All these can differ enormously depending on the context he finds himself in. It is unclear whether the chapters in the book describe Confucius’s actual behavior or prescribe how he (and by extension others) would or should have conducted himself in a particular situation. Such a distinction is, however, largely irrelevant; for what makes this book so interesting is the detailed picture of the world that Confucius lived in and the social mores of his times.

(2) 10.1 provides a clear illustration of how Confucius effortlessly adapts his speech and mannerisms to the ritual needs of the specific social situation he encounters. In his home village, he remains quiet, friendly, and deferential out of respect for his elders and ancestors. In public life at the ancestral temple and court, he is willing to speak out when appropriate but is still cautious in what he says in order to avoid causing needless offense to others in attendance.

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

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