Leadership lessons from Confucius: ingrained institutional biases?

子曰:「先進於禮樂,野人也;後進於禮樂,君子也。如用之,則吾從先進。」
Confucius said: “Those who learn ritual and music before taking up an official position are the common people; those who learn ritual and music after taking up an official position are the nobility. If I were to employ them, I would employ the former.” (1) (2)

What kind of staff do you prefer to hire? Candidates who have put in the hard yards to develop their knowledge and expertise but are a little rough around the edges? Or candidates who have developed the right connections and demeanor as a result of their family background but know next to nothing about the job you plan to place them in?

In theory, I’m certain most people would say that they would opt for the former. In practice, however, I’m not so sure, particularly for professions like law, banking, consultancy, and government service.

Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at your organization’s hiring processes. There might be a chance that ingrained institutional biases are excluding worthy candidates because they didn’t attend the right school and college and lack the right relationships and polish.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) The ambiguity of this passage has led to multiple interpretations, none of which I find particularly satisfying. Much of the ambiguity revolves around the definition of the phrase 野人/yěrén, which Confucius contrasts with 君子/jūnzǐ. The former literally means “wild person”, “person living in the wilds”, “crazy person”, “savage”, or “rustic”; while the latter originally means “person of noble birth”.

My interpretation is based on the idea that Confucius is taking a swipe at the hereditary nobility, who were able to place their sons in government jobs without any knowledge or expertise in music and ritual (or anything else for that matter). In contrast, “common people” from the lower social classes like Confucius and most of his followers had to really know their stuff in order to attain an official position.

(2) It’s also possible that Confucius is referring to the shamans of antiquity who laid the early foundations of Chinese culture with their mysterious rituals that were later on codified by the emerging ruling class who co-opted and corrupted them for their own purposes. If this is indeed the case, it’s no surprise that Confucius would want to return to the purity of the original sources of music and ritual rather than rely on the tarnished contemporary versions.

A translation based on this interpretation would be something like this:

Confucius said: “The first people to develop ritual and music were living in the wilds; members of the nobility didn’t advance them until later. If I had to put them to use, I would follow the ones who developed them first.”

I took this image of an ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessel at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

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