Leadership lessons from Confucius: a steady hand

Confucius said: “The way to rule a thousand-chariot state is to devote yourself to its affairs and fulfill your commitments; be economical in expenditure and love your people; and mobilize the common people for labor at the right times of the year.”

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 a minimum and care for the people you work with; and don’t make unnecessary demands on them unless it is absolutely necessary.

If you’re not passionate about your work, you can’t expect your colleagues to be either. If you miss deadlines or are late for meetings, your colleagues will do the same. Credibility is a scarce and valuable commodity that is easy to lose and difficult to regain.

Lavish spending on office facilities, entertainment, and travel may make a powerful impression to begin with, but it won’t be long before your colleagues, customers, and suppliers start wondering if the money is being used productively and who is paying for it all. While good salary packages are important, money is not the primary source of motivation for most people. A respectful working atmosphere that recognizes their contributions and gives them room for growth is much more important over the long term.

Although long hours and even weekends may be unavoidable during peak periods and emergencies, don’t make a habit of them. Placing excessive demands on both yourself and others will not only cause resentment but also lead to burnout.

A steady hand is required to keep your team of chariots on course!


This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) In ancient China, the power of a state was measured by the number of chariots it could muster for battle, just as we used to gauge the strength of a country by the number of nuclear warheads it owned during the second half of twentieth century. By Confucius’ time a thousand chariots made for quite an impressive display of force, but it certainly didn’t match the numbers that some of the larger kingdoms had available. An alternative translation could be “medium-size state.”

(2) The implication here is that a ruler should allow his people to carry out seasonal agricultural tasks such as planting and harvesting without interference, and only call them up for war or work on projects such as the construction of irrigation systems at other times of the year. If the ruler demanded too much free labor from his people, they would either rebel or flee to another state with a more benign leader.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Qufu.



I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.