Leadership lessons from Confucius: navigating hierarchies


When he was at court chatting with officials in the lower ranks, he was genial; when he was chatting with officials in the upper ranks, he was direct but respectful. When the ruler was present, he was reverent but composed.

For all the talk about creating “flat” organizations, every institution still has its own formal and informal hierarchies no matter how enlightened or progressive it may claim to be. Rather than attempt to fight it, learn how to navigate the hierarchical environment more effectively.

At heart this requires being courteous towards everyone you interact with no matter what their formal title or role is. This may sound may sound like common sense, but not everyone is a total joy to work with. Power can have a very corrosive effect on people’s behavior.

It also means showing respect to your peers even if you don’t like them personally. You’ll need all the support you can get when it comes to rolling out your next major initiative. Even if it looks great in PowerPoint, it will have no chance of succeeding if nobody is willing to back it.

Showing due respect to your bosses is, of course, also of vital importance, but this needs to be combined with self-assurance and frankness in their presence. They are looking to you for solutions to the issues they face. You need to show that you have the confidence to provide them, not to mention the ability to withstand heavy pressure.


This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) The rigid Zhou dynasty rules of ritual propriety that governed people’s conduct and their interactions with others from different classes were breaking down during the tumultuous times that Confucius lived in. Although he was widely ridiculed as a stick-in-the-mud for his efforts to restore them, his ideas about the importance of common courtesy in building and maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships remain as relevant now as during his day.

(2) 10.2 provides an additional demonstration of how Confucius automatically modifies his behavior according to the ritual demands of the circumstances he finds himself in. He is “genial” towards his colleagues and more junior officials without becoming too close with them, and he is “direct but respectful” to more senior officials without being sycophantic towards them. Even when he is in the presence of the ruler, he shows no sign of nerves and refuses to curry favor with him.

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

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