Tag Archives: Confucius on leadership

Confucius on leadership presentation

As a follow-up to my recent post on the same subject, I’ve posted a presentation on slideshare summarizing some of the most important characteristics that Confucius believed a leader (君子/jūnzǐ) should possess using quotes from Book 1 of the Analects.

I’d love to hear any feedback you may have on it.  More presentations on the main themes of  Confucius’s teachings are in the pipeline.


Leadership in the Analects


If I were ever asked to choose one single word that sums up the main theme of the Analects, I would unhesitatingly opt for “leadership”. Through his teachings, Confucius was attempting to educate the ruling elite of his time how to create and govern a just and fair society that would ensure peace, prosperity, and harmony for all. Continue reading Leadership in the Analects

Virtuous leadership

Confucius said: “If a leader behaves in the correct manner everything will operate smoothly even if he doesn’t issue orders. If a leader doesn’t behave in the correct manner, nobody will listen even if he does issue orders.”

Although the principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is more commonly associated with the teachings of Laozi in the Daodejing, Confucius applied the same way of thinking to his concept of virtuous leadership. Continue reading Virtuous leadership

Rectification of the names

Zilu asked: “If the Duke of Wei were to entrust you with the government of his state, what would be your first priority? Confucius said: “It most definitely would be to rectify the names.” Zilu said: “Really? Isn’t that a little strange? How would that make things right?” Confucius said: “How dense can you get! If a leader doesn’t understand what he is talking about, he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things. When language does not accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully. When nothing can be carried out successfully, the rites and music will not flourish. When the rites and music don’t flourish, punishments and penalties miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, the people do not know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever he wants to talk about, and must also make sure he does exactly as he says. When it comes to speaking, a leader doesn’t allow any carelessness.”

Just as history is written by the winners so is the language controlled by them. Confucius shows he clearly understands this point when he tells Zilu that if he were to assume a position of power, his top priority would be to “rectify the names” for “if the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things.”

Confucius’s version of “the truth” harked back to China’s mythical golden age under the Duke of Zhou (周公) over a thousand years before he was born. By restoring what he saw as the original meanings of the words embodying the values of his hero, Confucius hoped to bring back higher ethical and moral standards and reestablish social order.

Unable to secure a high-level position in government during his lifetime, Confucius died without achieving his dream – though of course it could be argued that the subsequent publication and popularization of the Analects meant that he ended up having a far far greater influence on the enduring debate about social values than he could have ever possibly achieved as a senior official of the state of Wei.

Selecting and nurturing talent

When Ran Yong was serving as a steward of the Ji Family, he asked about governance. Confucius said: “First appoint your senior officials. Forgive small mistakes. Promote people of talent.” Ran Yong asked: “How do I recognize that someone has talent and deserves to be promoted?” Confucius said: “Promote those you know. Those you don’t know will not be passed over.”

In the same way that he felt a leader should not be a mere “vessel” or technician, Confucius also thought that the leader’s role was not to micromanage the work of his subordinates but to make sure that they discharged their duties in the correct manner. Continue reading Selecting and nurturing talent

Leadership advice

Zizhang asked about governance. Confucius said: “Execute the responsibilities of your office untiringly. Carry out your duties loyally.”

Confucius said: “If you expand your learning through culture and keep your behavior in check with the rites you are unlikely to go wrong.”

Confucius said: “A leader brings out the good in people – not the bad. A petty person does exactly the opposite.”

Some useful leadership advice: if you set the right example to others and bring out the good in them, they will automatically follow you. Continue reading Leadership advice

All men are brothers

Sima Niu was full of sorrow: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.” Zixia said: “I have heard this: life and death are ordained by Fate; wealth and honors are assigned by Heaven. A leader always shows respect and courtesy to others. Within the four seas all men are brothers. How could a leader complain that he has no brothers?

As I mentioned in a previous entry, it’s possible that Sima Niu had a brother called Huan Tui (桓魋), who tried to have Confucius murdered in Book 7, Chapter XXII of the Analects. If this was indeed the case, the real meaning of Sima Niu’s comment is that he doesn’t have a brother who acts like a brother should and he has therefore disassociated himself from him. Continue reading All men are brothers

What makes a leader?

Sima Niu asked: “What makes a leader?” Confucius said: “A leader has no anxiety or fear.” Sima Niu said: “No anxiety or fear? That’s what makes a leader?” Confucius said: “When he looks inside himself and finds nothing wrong, what does he have to be anxious about or fear?”

Elegant but formulaic: this passage has exactly the same structure as the previous one. Continue reading What makes a leader?

rites revisited


Confucius said: “Reverence without the rites descends into indifference; cautiousness without the rites descends into timidity; boldness without the rites descends into disorder; frankness without the rites descends into hurtfulness. If a leader is devoted to his family, the people are inclined towards goodness; if he doesn’t forget about his old friends, the people will not shirk their obligations to others.”

It’s been a while since I last mentioned the rites (禮/), the unwritten rules, rituals, and conventions that glue a society together by providing an overall context for individual behavior. As Confucius points out, without this context it can be very easy for people to cross the invisible line and indulge in undesirable behavior. Continue reading rites revisited

Young leaders


Confucius said of Zijian: “He is a true leader! If there were indeed no leaders in the state of Lu, how would he have reached this level?”

Zijian (子賤) rose to become the chief magistrate of a district called Danfu (單父) in the state of Lu and was famous for preferring to spend his time playing music rather than working. Continue reading Young leaders