Leadership Lessons from Confucius: after the horse has bolted

after the horse has bolted

Confucius said: “I can adjudicate lawsuits as well as anybody. But I would prefer to make litigation unnecessary.”

Why bother shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Focus instead on building a culture that prevents the steed from escaping in the first place. Rules are reactive by their very nature. They only address situations that have already taken place without identifying or eliminating the root cause. There’ll never be enough of them to cover every possible scenario that might occur. It’s only by putting the right principles, processes, and practices in place that you and your organization will become more proactive in dealing with potential problems and threats.


This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.

(1) Confucius was highly suspicious of the effectiveness of governing people through strict laws and regulations backed up by threats of draconian punishments. He argued that a combination of moral education and adherence to ritual (禮/lǐ) – the invisible glue that holds society together – is a much more effective way of ensuring civilized behavior, reducing crime, and settling personal, family, and business disputes. For more on his thoughts on law, see this article here.

(2) Confucius’s approach was attacked during his lifetime and afterwards by followers of what later became known as the school of Legalism (法家/Fǎjiā), including Shang Yang (商鞅) [390 – 338 BCE] and Han Fei (韓非) [280 – 233 BCE]. As a result of its strict implementation of Legalist teachings, the formerly backward state of Qin became so powerful that it conquered all the others states and in 221 BCE unified them under Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), the first emperor of a unified China. After his death in 201 BCE, however, the Qin dynasty quickly collapsed – in large part as a reaction to the heavy burdens and brutal punishments that its Legalist code imposed on the people – and Confucius’s approach took over the ascendant role in Chinese jurisprudence for over two millennia.

I took this image in a hillside temple in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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