Leadership Lessons from Confucius: observing ritual and showing deference

Richard Brown
3 min readMar 11, 2019

Confucius said: “If a ruler is able to govern a state by observing ritual and showing deference, what more does he need to do? If a ruler fails to accomplish this, what use is ritual to him?”

A while ago, we signed an agreement to participate in an industry event in the US. This was the first time we had done business with this company, and I was impressed with the efficiency of the rep that we were dealing with. That is until she suggested almost immediately after we’d signed the document that we take part in another event half-way across the world in a location that was not a strategic priority for us.

As I reviewed the rep’s previous emails, it dawned on me that the message was part of highly-automated process implemented using salesforce or a similar application designed to push the customer into deep engagement with the company and to generate additional business as quickly as possible. While this approach may have looked great on a PowerPoint presentation, it came across to me as too much too soon and caused me to instantly lose the initial goodwill I had towards the company.

Just as I wouldn’t want to enter into a relationship with someone I haven’t even dated yet, neither would I consider giving a second order to a company without first experiencing the product that they are offering. Why take the risk of expanding the business with a company that hadn’t proved itself yet, and worse, hadn’t even bothered to learn about our overall global strategy?

There is, as Confucius puts it in this passage, a “ritual” that needs to be observed if you are to build a successful long-term personal or business relationship. Attempting to speed it up or eliminate vital steps in creating it will more than likely result in a breakup somewhere along the line.

Building mutual understanding and respect, or showing deference as Confucius describes it, is a vital part of this process. That means listening as well as talking and putting in the time and effort to know each other’s culture and needs. Not even the most sophisticated marketing automation systems come anywhere near being able to do that. The human touch is still required for building and nurturing partnerships.

The same principle also applies to leadership. Sure, there may be occasions when you need to bang the drum to get something urgent done. But the harder you push people without giving them the appropriate resources, support, and encouragement, the more likely they are to push back through passive resistance or even walking out of the door just when you need them most.

Observing ritual and showing deference may not make for the snappiest of leadership buzzwords, but a regular dash of both of them can go a long way in boosting collaboration within your organization and outside it.


This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.

I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.



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.