Leadership Lessons from Confucius: lead the people by example

lead the people by example

Zilu asked about governance. Confucius said: “Lead the people by example. Work hard for them.” Zilu asked him for further instruction. Confucius said: “Tirelessly.”

The only way you can expect others to perform miracles is to achieve them yourself. If you’re not leading from the front, they’re not going to be running to keep up with you. If you’re not showing passion for your work, their faces aren’t exactly going to be filled with enthusiasm. You have to prove yourself to them before they’ll feel the need to start proving themselves to you.

Fine words and rousing speeches might help set off a spark of inspiration in everyone, but it will soon go out if you fail to match your soaring rhetoric with meaningful actions. It’s only if you lead the people by example that they will be truly fired up.


This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Like Book 12, Book 13 of the Analects features regular riffs on the importance of leadership by example. This was the core principle of Confucius’s teachings on governance and he missed no opportunity to repeat it to rulers, ministers, officials, and, of course, his followers. How successful he was in persuading them to actually live by this creed is of course open to question!

(2) Preparing his followers for a career as an official was Confucius’s primary goal as a teacher. His most prominent ones like Zilu were widely sought after by rulers of the states that comprised the kingdom of Zhou and served in high-level positions. The irony, of course, is that Confucius never succeeded in securing a senior ministerial position himself.

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

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