Leadership lessons from Confucius: native substance versus cultural refinement

cultural refinement

Ji Zicheng said: “Native substance determines whether or not you’re a leader. What use is cultural refinement?” Zigong said: “What a pity you’ve chosen to describe a leader in this way. ‘A team of horses cannot catch up with a tongue.’ Cultural refinement is native substance; native substance is cultural refinement. Without their hair, the pelts of tigers and leopards are just the same as those of a dog or a sheep.”

It takes much more than raw talent to become a leader. Native smarts and a raging fire in your belly can only get you so far. The larger and more complex your startup grows, the more you’ll need to develop your knowledge and skills to meet ever greater and more diverse challenges.

It takes much more than a Harvard MBA to become a leader. Fluency in the language of business and spreadsheets can only get you so far. The larger and more complex your role becomes, the more you’ll need to be able figure out how to translate your elegant strategies and models into real-world results.

Becoming a leader means managing an ever-shifting balance between native substance and cultural refinement. The more you can get these polarities to complement rather than contend with each other, the greater the chance you have of reaching your full potential.


This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.

(1) Ji Zicheng was a minister of the state of Wei. The follower Zigong served as an official there for some time, so this exchange may have taken place then. Some commentators speculate that Ji was obliquely criticizing the ruling elite for their preference for vapid displays of rhetorical and sartorial excess over political and administrative substance with his attack on cultural refinement (文/wén).

(2) The original meaning of the Chinese character for culture was “patterns”. This is probably the reason for Zigong’s reference to the pelts of tigers and leopards.

(3) The phrase “A team of horses cannot catch up with a tongue” (駟不及) is a warning to be careful before you speak. Once you’ve said something, you’ll never be able to take it back.

(4) Confucius makes similar comments to Zigong on native substance and cultural refinement in 6.18.

I took this image on the top of Jiuwufeng in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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