Leadership Lessons from Confucius: go high or go low?

Confucius said: “A leader goes high. A petty person goes low.”

Be honest with yourself. Do you go high or do you go low? Do you work for the common good or for your own personal benefit? Do you really care about helping to make life better for others or are you driven by adding more zeros to your bank account?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with acting in your own interests — as long as of course you are open about your motives and do not harm others in the process. After all, you have a family to look after and personal dreams and desires to fulfil. Some people will even appreciate your candidness, at least until they begin to tire of your selfishness and start to hint that it is time for you to give back to the society that has made it possible for you to gain so much.

Perhaps by then, your own thinking will already have started to change in any case. Making money can be fun, but there are only so many fancy resorts you can stay in and luxury mansions you can own. Even if you do not start out from the purest of motives, you will probably find sharing your good fortune just as rewarding as making it — if not more so.

Just be wary of those who claim to be passionately committed to saving the world while pulling down six-figure salaries and projecting their empathy and compassion for all the world to see. While you may be tempted to admire them for going so high, chances are that they will turn out to go far lower than you ever did as a hard-scrabbling entrepreneur.

This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) This is another of the many comparisons Confucius makes in the Analects between the leader and the petty person. See 4.16 for a similar example: “A leader is concerned about what is right; a petty person is concerned about what is in their own interest.”

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting as regent to his nephew, the young King Cheng.

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