Leadership lessons from Confucius: beyond the ritual script

ritual script

朋友死,無所歸,曰:「於我殯。」
When a friend died and there was no one to take care of his funeral, he said: “Let me look after it.”

Ritual is a form of automation. It provides you with the script and stage directions to follow when carrying out interpersonal interactions such as meeting another person or attending an event or religious ceremony. Memorizing and internalizing these conventions enables you to get through your day much more smoothly because you don’t have to think about how to behave or what to say in most common situations. In most cultures, for example, when you meet someone for the first time, you automatically shake their hand.

The challenge comes when you encounter an unexpected situation that’s not included in the ritual script. What to do if a friend dies suddenly and he has no surviving family to send him off with a proper funeral, to take the example in this passage. Do you step forward and take care of the arrangements or do you shrink into the background while quietly mourning his passing?

There are no simple answers to this question. Confucius readily takes on the responsibility to look after the funeral arrangements because of his concern that his friend won’t receive a proper burial. However, he is under no obligation to do this according to the conventions of ritual. In other words, he has to rely on his generous instincts rather than use the ritual script as a guide.

The same principle applies to even the most advanced automated systems we have today based on AI. Although they can take care of most of the decisions they are trained to make in a satisfactory manner, they are unable to handle situations that fall out of the pre-determined script. Try having an extended conversation with a chatbot to see what I mean.

No matter how sophisticated our AI systems become, there will always be exceptional situations that require human judgment. Let’s hope that the decisions we make are reached in the same generous spirit as Confucius adopts towards his friend.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

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

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