Tag Archives: leadership

Leadership Lessons from Confucius: character counts

character counts

子曰:「弟子入則孝,出則弟,謹而信,汎愛眾,而親仁。行有餘力,則以學文。」
The Master said: “A young man should be filial at home and fraternal outside it. He should be cautious and truthful, love everyone, but only develop close relationships with good people. If he still has energy to spare after all this, he should study the classics.”

How to prepare the young generation for a fast-moving and turbulent world? This was just as daunting a challenge in Confucius’s day as it is in ours due the politically and socially unstable times that he lived in. Finding suitable jobs in the bureaucracy or estates of the hereditary ruling calls was just as tough as it is nowadays for educated young people without family connections, and there was at least an equal chance of being caught up in violence and wars as the different states vied with each other for supremacy.

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Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a steady hand

steady hand

子曰:「道千乘之國,敬事而信,節用而愛人,使民以時。」
The Master said: “The way to rule a thousand-chariot state(1) is to devote yourself to its affairs and fulfill your commitments; be economical in expenditure and love your subordinates; and mobilize the common people for labor at the right time of the year.”(2)

No matter how large the group or organization you lead is, the principles you should follow in order to create a productive and harmonious culture remain the same: show a strong work ethic and live up to the promises you make; keep operational costs to minimum and care for the people you work with; and don’t make unnecessary demands on them unless it is absolutely necessary.

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Leadership Lessons from Confucius: smooth talk and an affected manner

子曰:「巧言令色鮮矣仁。」
The Master said: “Smooth talk and an affected manner are seldom signs of goodness.” (1)

How do you deal with the sycophants that inevitably gravitate towards you like bees to a honeypot when you reach a leadership position? It’s easy enough to dismiss them for their “smooth talk” and “affected manner” as Confucius does in Chapter 3 of Book 1 of the Analects, but much more challenging to create a culture around you that doesn’t stand for such behavior in the first place.

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Leadership Lessons from Confucius: succession management

Temple of Yan Hui, Qufu
Temple of Yan Hui, Qufu

有子曰:「其為人也孝弟,而好犯上者,鮮矣;不好犯上,而好作亂者,未之有也。君子務本,本立而道生。孝弟也者,其為仁之本與!」
Youzi said: “A man who shows filial and fraternal devotion is unlikely to question the authority of his superiors. Such a man will never provoke disorder. A leader focuses on the root; once this takes hold the way appears. Filial and fraternal devotion is the root of goodness.”

Confucius was a master of talent development, training hundreds if not thousands of followers (1) who went on to take official positions and run businesses in the patchwork quilt of states that comprised China during his lifetime.

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Leadership lessons from Confucius: never give up

Leadership Lessons from Confucius

子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」
The Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and repeatedly apply the lessons you’ve learned? Isn’t it a joy to have friends visit from afar? Isn’t it the mark of a leader to go unacknowledged without letting it annoy you?”(1)

How do you become a leader? This is the central theme of the teachings of Confucius as recorded in The Analects. The answer is by studying the core principles hard and iterating the lessons you have learned from them so enthusiastically that they become an unconscious part of who you are and how you conduct yourself. There are no magical shortcuts in this process, though that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be an enjoyable one. There are no guaranteed earthly or heavenly rewards for following it either. You pursue this path because it is the right thing to do, not because there is a pot of gold at the end of it or any likes or retweets along the way. (2)

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Situational leadership in the Analects and the Daodejing

The main reason for my interest in the Analects and the Daodejing is that they focus on providing practical solutions to real-world problems.

Unlike many of the works in the Western philosophical cannon, they don’t feature any agonized searches for a universal “truth” or any promises of eternal salvation for ascribing to the “right” set of values or behaving in the “correct” manner. Instead, they are concerned with dealing with the challenges of the here and now, exploring how you can improve your character to make a greater contribution to the stability and prosperity of your family, community, and society overall.

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Daodejing Chapter 17: the best leader

Daodejing Chapter 17

「太上,不知有之;其次,親而譽之;其次,畏之;其次,侮之;信不足焉,有不信焉。悠兮其貴言。功成、事遂,百姓皆謂:我自然。」
The best leader is one whose presence is unknown to his people;
The next best is one who is loved and praised;
The next is one who is feared;
The worst is one who is despised;
When a leader has no trust in his people,
The people have no trust in him.
The best leader reflects and chooses his words carefully.
When his objective is achieved and the work is done,
The people all say, “We did it ourselves.”
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Daodejing Chapter 8: like water

Daodejing water 

「上善若水,水善利萬物而不爭,處眾人之所惡,故幾於道。居善地,心善淵、與善仁、言善信、正善治、事善能、動善時。夫唯不爭,故無尤」
The highest good is like water;
Water brings good to all things without contending with them;
It settles in places that people disdain;
Thus, it’s close to the Dao.
In choosing your home, it’s the location that counts;
In cultivating your mind, it’s depth that counts;
In dealing with others, it’s goodness that counts;
In speaking, it’s good faith that counts;
In governing, it’s order that counts;
In handling affairs, it’s ability that counts;
In action, it’s timing that counts.
By not contending with others,
You won’t be singled out for reproach.
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Daodejing Chapter 3: leadership through effortless action

「不尚賢,使民不爭;不貴難得之貨,使民不為盜;不見可欲,使民心不亂;是以聖人之治,虛其心、實其腹、弱其志、強其骨。常使民無知無欲,使夫智者不敢為也。為無為,則無不治。」
Do not single out the gifted for praise,
To ensure that the people never contend;
Do not prize rare goods,
To ensure that the people never steal;
Do not display objects of desire,
To ensure that the people’s hearts will never be restless.
That’s why the sage rules his people by:
Emptying their minds;
But filling their stomachs;
Weakening their ambitions;
But strengthening their sinews.
Always keeping the people free from knowledge and desires,
To ensure that those with knowledge will never dare act.
By acting with effortless action,
There is nothing that he cannot govern.
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