Leadership lessons from Confucius: simple acts of common courtesy

common courtesy

Whenever Confucius saw someone in mourning dress, a grandee in ceremonial robes, or a blind person, he would always rise to his feet even if they were younger than him and quicken his step when he passed by them.

Never underestimate the potential of a friendly smile or a sincere thank you to lift the mood of people you encounter during your day. We all like to be acknowledged and appreciated for who we are and the contribution we make. Even the most seemingly innocuous of words and gestures can be enough to boost our morale and restore our faith in ourselves and the rest of humanity.

No matter whether it consisted of acknowledging the grief of someone in mourning or showing deference to a blind person, Confucius was a strong advocate of the power of ritual (禮/lǐ) to increase social cohesion. He believed that by giving people a means to spontaneously show their love and respect for each other, even the simplest rituals could add meaning to otherwise mundane social encounters and remind us of our shared humanity.

In an age when we spend hour after hour with our faces buried in our smart phone screens even when we are out and about in public spaces, feelings of alienation and disengagement have never been greater. Perhaps the time has come to take a leaf out of Confucius’s book so that we can restore a sense of shared meaning and community to our lives starting with simple acts of common courtesy.


This article features a translation of Chapter 10 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) Book 10 of the Analects is filled with similar examples of this type of spontaneous ritual behavior. See also 7.9 for another example. The key point being made is that Confucius is so immersed in the moment that he automatically knows how to act in the appropriate manner.

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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