Leadership lessons from Confucius: buyer beware!

buyer beware

Confucius said: “If someone seems serious and sincere in their opinions, does it mean that they’re a leader or that they’re only pretending to be one?”

Judge people by what they do rather than by what that say. This is an old saw, but one that bears repeating in an age when it’s never been so easy to show the whole world how wonderful you are with some carefully chosen words or images.

This doesn’t mean that you should be automatically suspicious about what people have say when you meet them for the first time, but that you should take careful note of how they conduct themselves towards other people who are less senior than you or the waiter or waitress who is serving coffee during you meeting. You should also be sure to carefully track whether they deliver on the commitments they make to you. Trust but verify, in other words.

The same principle applies to corporations keen to signal their virtues in today’s highly competitive market place. Do coffee companies that sell heavily sugared drinks really care about the health of their customers? And do sneaker companies that employ tens of thousands of people in sweatshops truly believe in empowering the individual?

Caveat Emptor! Buyer beware!


This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

I took this image of these two ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessels 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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