Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a step-by-step approach
Confucius said: “‘When the most able people govern a country for a hundred years, cruelty can be overcome and killing eliminated.’ How true this saying is!”
When it comes to implementing meaningful change, you need to recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight — no matter how hard you may try to will it or enforce it. A step-by-step approach is required. The key is to set an ambitious yet achievable timeframe featuring clear and concrete milestones for measuring progress. Of course, there will be times when you find yourself wondering whether you’ll ever be able to accomplish it. On such occasions, don’t give up. Just brush yourself down and get on with it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all.
This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.
(1) Rulers during the Spring and Autumn Period favored oppressive measures to maintain order and stability in their state over the leadership-by-virtue model promoting by Confucius. The judicial system that they employed was notoriously arbitrary in in determining the guilt or innocence of offenders. Convicted criminals were subjected to extremely harsh punishments for even the most minor offenses, ranging from execution, dismemberment, and disfigurement to branding with tattoos and long terms of hard labor working on construction and agricultural projects. Confucius was perhaps being rather optimistic in declaring that such a system could be reformed in a hundred years even with “able people” in charge.
(2) The term 善人 (shànrén) is difficult to translate adequately in English. It refers to able, good, or excellent people who, despite meeting very high standards of morality and competence, didn’t quite meet the lofty standards of the sage kings of antiquity.