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Confucius’ Principles For Leadership

The question “What makes a good leader?” has been asked for many centuries and will continue to be debated...

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The question “What makes a good leader?” has been asked for many centuries and will continue to be debated until the end of time.  Although every leadership theory has strengths and weaknesses, the combination and analysis of each individual theory can provide a leader with a well-rounded education.  One such example of leadership principles comes from the Chinese philosopher Confucius.  Throughout the Analects of Confucius, translated by Chichung Huang, Confucius describes his disciplines for the roles, responsibilities, and duties of government leaders.  Though the word “leadership” is not explicitly stated in his teachings, Confucius instructs government authorities to develop the necessary qualities to lead government and retain the Mandate of Heaven.

Although Confucius does not mention “leaders” or “leadership” directly, many of his teachings on government and becoming a “gentlemen” can be applied to these topics.  A leader’s primary purpose is to serve the people.  Together, these two facets (leader and people), work as a team to clear a path toward a common goal.  Through motivation, teaching, and guidance, the leader assists the people in reaching their fullest potential.  Confucius highlighted the duties of a leader by explaining the proper way to think, act, and make decisions in government positions.  Qualities such as continual learning, frugality, humility, confidence, commitment, and loyalty are all examples found within his teachings that provide a framework for leadership.  Most importantly, Confucius taught extensively on virtue and why leaders must be virtuous.

Virtue is the basis in which a leader receives his power.  Confucius explained that one way to become virtuous is to be correct: “If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are incorrect, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed” (Huang 134).   As this teaching explains, people will not follow a leader who lacks virtue.  Ultimately, it is a leader’s responsibility to develop virtue through education, experience, and hard work.  This continual process was described by Confucius as becoming a “gentleman”: someone recognized by others to be active in his development of education and abilities (Huang 84).  This superior man sets the standard for living a proper life.  He was required to lead with traits such as gentleness, benevolence, respectfulness, frugality, and deference (Huang 49).  An individual who truly exhibited these qualities would most likely become a very powerful and respected leader.

Of the traits mentioned, respect and deference are the most important to a government official because respect creates the base for trust to be built.  Confucius said, “Have ample food and armament and the people shall trust you” (Huang 127).  If one of those three must be cut, he told his disciple to first “Cut armament…[then] cut food.  If people do not trust you, you have nothing to stand on” (Huang 127).  Confucius’ list of priorities explain that people’s physiological needs (food) must be met first, followed by protection (armament).  Additionally, Confucius said a leader must “Promote the upright, place them above the crooked, and the people shall be obedient” (Huang 56).  Confucius understood that rewarding people provides incentive for others to succeed, which ultimately raises the society as a whole.  Overall, a leader should never compromise the trust of his people.

Although some may claim that deference is just respect, the specific definition is much deeper.  While respect is a quality that an individual earns, deference is a required form of respect that people must submit to because of a tradition or cultural belief.  Arguably, deference cannot be gained or lost.   In Chinese culture, which was heavily influenced by Confucius’ teachings, a leader can lose the respect of the people; however, the leadership position will always require the people to show deference.  This aspect is what holds the overall form of government together in times of crisis and change.  This is a distinct difference from other failures of governments in history.  In many of these cases, conflict erupts, the nation’s progress halts, and an entirely new political system is eventually adopted.  In Chinese society, deference is an important aspect in the role of governmental leadership.  Deference allows the ruler to immediately begin leading the country and gaining the respect of the people.  This concept of deference originates from the Chinese belief in the “Mandate of Heaven” which is the cause of the Chinese dynastic cycle.

The Mandate of Heaven is the Chinese belief that a leader’s power is predestined by heaven.  Revolts and failing governments are seen as signs from heaven, demanding a change in government leadership.  This cyclic change requires leaders to be both virtuous and supportive of the people in order to gain their trust.  Confucius  explains, “When the state possessed the Way, he [the leader] was wise; when the state lost the Way, he [the leader] was stupid” (Huang 77).  As soon as the Way (the Mandate of Heaven) is lost, all confidence and respect of the current leader is lost.  No matter how wise the leader is, he cannot govern without heaven’s approval and is ultimately made stupid and useless.  The leader who retains the Mandate, however, is seen to be wise.

Overall, virtue and respect are necessary qualities for a leader striving to live up to the people’s deference of the government position.  These traits, which are required for people seeking to become a “gentlemen,” are admirable examples of learning to lead through education and training.  While some people and organizations argue that leaders are born with these qualities, Confucius’ disciplines would prove otherwise by implying that leaders are developed.  Leaders must learn and gain experience to supplement his natural talents.  Confucius emphasized that individuals must go through a process of development to become gentlemen or leaders: “By nature, people are close to one another; through practice, they drift far apart.”  Huang clarifies his translation by noting that, “Human nature is neutral at birth” (165).  As both the excerpt and note explain, people are not simply born with the necessary traits to lead.  Though there are examples of great individuals who seem to have a natural talent for leading, it is important to remember that everyone receives education and enlightenment along their journey.  Ultimately, it is the combination of nature and nurture that determines an individual’s ability to lead, influence, maintain trust, and retain the Mandate of Heaven.

As a result, Confucius’ indirect teachings of leadership have important implications for leaders striving to retain the Mandate of Heaven.  By becoming gentlemen and leaders of virtue and respect, they increase their ability to influence while better serving the people.  Becoming a “good leader” is not an instantaneous achievement.  Furthermore, there is not a one-size-fits-all set of traits that all leaders must have.  Leadership is a gradual process that requires discipline, education, and natural talent.  Teachings from great leaders, like Confucius, help aspiring individuals grow and develop into the next generation of leaders.


Work Cited

Huang, Chicung, trans.  The Analects of Confucius.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

Written by Christopher Sands
Sophomore studying Gen Ed. I am a swimmer and team captain for the VC Mens Swim Team. I will be transferring to California Baptist University in Fall 2015 :) Profile

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