Leadership Lessons from Confucius: an expense or an investment?

expense or an investment

Confucius said: “Sending people to war who have not been properly instructed is called ‘throwing them away.’”

Is training an expense or an investment? This is a very difficult question to answer, not least because even with the most sophisticated tools and models it’s almost impossible to show a direct link between money spent on staff training and financial performance. Indeed, it’s probably much easier to show losses caused by employees leaving for better-paid jobs after receiving excellent (and expensive) training from their organization!

Despite its unclear ROI, the speed with which new technologies are accelerating the creation and application of knowledge means that holding back on staff training will simply mean that your organization will fall further and further behind. The key question you really need to address is how to turn your training expenses into investments by making sure that the programs you provide are relevant and effective.

After all, the same new technologies that are accelerating the creation and application of knowledge are also making its diffusion easier and faster than ever before. By delivering this new knowledge in engaging new formats customized to meet the specific learning needs of each individual, you have a great opportunity not just to keep up with the competition but also to encourage new ideas and ways of thinking that will enable your organization to leap ahead of it.


This article features a translation of Chapter 30 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) This is the final chapter Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. As with 13.29, there is some scholarly debate over whether Confucius is referring to military or moral instructions (or indeed both).

This image was taken in the Taiwan National Center of Traditional Arts in Yilan County. You can read more about it here.

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