Leadership Lessons from Confucius: enduring values and ephemeral causes

When Yan Hui asked how to govern a state, Confucius said: “Observe the calendar of the Xia dynasty; ride in the chariot of the Yin dynasty; wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou dynasty. As for music, play only Shao and Wu; ban the melodies of Zheng; and stay away from smooth talkers. The melodies of Zheng are lewd. Smooth talkers are dangerous.”

When seeking to renew the culture of your organization, you do not need to copy slavishly from the past. Nor do you have to throw everything on the trash heap and start with a clean slate. Simply embrace the best of what has come before and build on it.

During the process, be careful to avoid becoming distracted by bright shiny objects that have the potential to divert you from your path. Opt for enduring values over ephemeral causes.

This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) The Xia was the first recorded dynasty in Chinese history and is said to have run from 2070 BCE to 1600 BCE. Its calendar is believed to have followed the natural rhythms of the seasons more closely than subsequent ones and hence to have been more useful to the agricultural population. It may also have included an almanac providing additional information about planting times, weather, and other relevant topics that would have made it even more valuable to the farming community.

The Yin dynasty, which is also known as the Shang dynasty, succeeded the Xia dynasty and lasted from 1600 BCE to 1046 BCE. Its chariots were made of wood only and were praised for their simplicity.

The Zhou dynasty succeeded the Yin dynasty and lasted from 1046 BCE to 256 BCC. Confucius’s hero, the Duke of Zhou, was said to have played an instrumental role in the consolidation of the dynasty’s power and the establishment of the feudal system that underpinned it. It is not clear why Confucius was such as fan of its caps, though some sources claim that it was because of their unique blend of elegance and practicality.

Confucius was a great lover of classical music, not just for its aesthetic beauty but also because he saw it as the embodiment of cultural sophistication and civilization. He was a particularly passionate lover of Shao, the coronation hymn of the legendary sage king Shun. He was strongly opposed, however, to more modern forms of musical like the “lewd” melodies of Zheng because of what he believed was their corrupting influence on society.

(2) This is the last time that Yan Hui, Confucius’s favorite follower, appears in the Analects. He died tragically young, leaving Confucius inconsolable with grief.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery 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.