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Leadership lessons from Confucius: creating unity

Temple of Yan Hui: unity

子曰:「君子周而不比,小人比而不周。」
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

子曰:「道之以政,齊之以刑,民免而無恥;道之以德,齊之以禮,有恥且格。」
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?

季子然問:「仲由、冉求,可謂大臣與?」子曰:「吾以子為異之問,曾由與求之問。所謂大臣者,以道事君,不可則止;今由與求也,可謂具臣矣。」曰:「然則從之者與?」子曰:「弒父與君,亦不從也。」
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!

子曰:「孝哉閔子騫,人不間於其父母昆弟之言。」
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

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子以四教:文,行,忠,信。
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?

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子曰:「富而可求也,雖執鞭之士,吾亦為之。如不可求,從吾所好。」
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

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子食於有喪者之側,未嘗飽也。子於是日哭,則不歌。
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.

A dark place

子曰:「我未見好仁者,惡不仁者。好仁者,無以尚之;惡不仁者,其為仁矣,不使不仁者加乎其身。有能一日用其力於仁矣乎?我未見力不足者。蓋有之矣,我未之見也。」
Confucius said: “I have never seen a person who truly loves goodness and truly detests evil. A person who truly loves goodness would place nothing above it; a person who truly detests evil would practice goodness in such a way that he would allow no evil to enter him. Is there anyone with the ability to devote all his strength to goodness for a single day? I have never seen anyone whose strength is not sufficient. There may be people who do not have even the small amount of strength it takes, but I have never seen them.”

Confucius was usually an optimist about people’s ability to cultivate their capacity for goodness if they received the right guidance and teaching. Yet here he seems to be in an uncharacteristically dark place, arguing that even if people know what goodness is they don’t have the will to act on it even “for a single day”. Continue reading A dark place