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Leadership Lessons from Confucius: cultural appropriation and cowardice

cultural appropriation

The Master said: “Sacrificing to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors is presumptuous. Doing nothing when rightness demands action is cowardice.” (1)

Cultural appropriation: this is the phrase that immediately sprang to mind when I read Confucius’s opening comment in the final chapter of Book 2 of The Analects. And yes, “sacrificing to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors” is indeed “presumptuous.” The best way to respect another culture is to learn as much as you can about it and only take part in its traditional ceremonies and festivities when you are invited to do so. There’s no excuse for insensitivity. Continue reading Leadership Lessons from Confucius: cultural appropriation and cowardice

Leadership lessons from Confucius: creating unity

Temple of Yan Hui: unity

The Master said: “A leader creates unity without taking sides. A petty person takes sides without creating unity.”

There are always going to be naysayers sniping away in the background when you implement a new initiative, but that shouldn’t discourage you from going ahead with it. Your role as a leader as a leader is to rise above the negativity and generate unity around your plan. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: creating unity

Leadership Lessons from Confucius: unintended consequences

Beijing Confucius Temple: unintended consequences

The Master said: “If you lead through laws and regulations and maintain order through punishments, people will avoid them but won’t develop a sense of shame. If you lead through virtue and keep them in line with the rites, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you.”

Whenever government or business leaders are faced with an ethical crisis, their instinctive response is to pass a raft of new legislation, regulations, rules, and codes of conduct to “solve” it. While in the short term this approach may give the illusion that they are “doing something” (not to mention generating some handy headlines), in the long term it has the highly corrosive effect of widening the gap between the elite and the people and increasing the level of interference into individuals’ lives. Continue reading Leadership Lessons from Confucius: unintended consequences

Great ministers?

Ji Ziran asked: “Would you say that Zilu and Ran Qiu are great ministers?” Confucius said: “I thought you were going to talk about something different, but you are just asking about Zilu and Ran Qiu. A great minister serves his lord by following the Way, and resigns if there is no possibility of doing so. As for Zilu and Ran Qiu, they might just be qualified to serve as ministers of state.” Ji Ziran said: “Do you mean that they would just follow their orders?” Confucius said: “They wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Although most of Confucius’s disciples not doubt followed him to learn the sage’s timeless wisdom, a not inconsiderable benefit of studying at the school of Confucius was that it opened up tremendous opportunities for lucrative job offers from assorted lords, dukes, and wealthy landowners anxious to snap up eager young talent to staff their bureaucracies and manage their financial and business affairs. Indeed, it’s not too fanciful to suggest that the Confucius brand was every bit as strong in its heyday as that of, say, Harvard Business School is today in terms of the doors it opened. Continue reading Great ministers?

A filial son!

Confucius said: “Min Ziqian is such a filial son! Nobody differs from his parents and brothers in their praise of him.”

One of Confucius’s favorite disciples, Min Ziqian was renowned for the filial piety he is said to have shown during his miserable childhood. After the untimely death of his own mother, he suffered terrible abuse from his father’s second wife, almost dying of cold on one occasion after she had lined his clothes with weeds rather than warm cotton. Continue reading A filial son!

Culture, conduct, loyalty, and trustworthiness


Confucius covered four subjects in his teaching: culture; conduct; loyalty; and trustworthiness.

This is passage is clearly linked to the previous chapter of Book 7. Note that out of the four subjects that Confucius taught, three were aimed at ensuring the correct behavior of an individual. Continue reading Culture, conduct, loyalty, and trustworthiness

An honorable pursuit?


Confucius said: “If seeking wealth were an honorable pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a lowly official. But if it isn’t, I’d rather follow my own interests.”

Although early on in his career Confucius worked as a book keeper and clerk, he clearly wasn’t as motivated by money as many of his fellow members of the thrusting middle class known as 士 (shì/knight or scholar] that were making their way in business and government bureaucracy during the Spring and Autumn Period. Continue reading An honorable pursuit?

Respect for the mourning


When Confucius dined next to someone in mourning, he never ate his fill. On a day when he had been weeping, the Confucius never sang.

Some editions of the Analects divide this into two chapters. Although the text doesn’t explicitly state it, I suspect that Confucius’s refusal to sing after weeping is connected mourning so I have kept the two sentences together in a single chapter.