Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governance, saying: “What would you think if I were to execute people who don’t follow the way in order to advance the people who do follow the way?” Confucius replied: “You are here to govern; what need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good. The virtue of a leader is like the wind; the virtue of the common people is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”
Harsh measures may sometimes be necessary to restore order to your organization, but at best they can only provide short-term relief. The only way to build a strong and stable culture is for the leader to set the right example for everyone to follow. If the wind blows in the wrong direction, the grass will bend in the wrong direction as well.
This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) In this famous passage, Confucius is at his most eloquent in expressing his belief in the responsibility of the ruler to act as the moral compass for his people. If a ruler sets the wrong example, the people cannot be blamed for following it. They will move in whatever direction the “wind” blows.
(2) Not too surprisingly the “wind and grass” metaphor that Confucius uses was seized upon by generation after generation of the ruling classes in China to justify their hold on power: they saw it as meaning that the duty of the people was simply to bend to their will. Talk about a double-edged sword!
I took this image in from the summit of Mount Qixing on Yangmingshan in Taipei.