Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the correct manner

Confucius said: “If a leader behaves in the correct manner everything will operate smoothly even if they don’t issue orders. If a leader doesn’t behave in the correct manner, nobody will listen even if they do issue orders.”

If you are not taking the right path, how can you expect others to follow you along it? If you do not conduct yourself in the correct manner, how can you expect others to act in the right way? As so many autocrats have learned to their cost during the course of history, no amount of force is strong enough to compel people to blindly follow you. Even if repression works in the short term, it will ultimately result in your downfall — not to mention untold harm to everyone who has suffered from your hubris.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Although the principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is more commonly associated with the teachings of Laozi in the Daodejing, Confucius applied the same way of thinking to his concept of leadership-by-virtue. For more of Confucius’s thoughts on this subject, see 2.1, 2.3, 2.21, 12.17, 13.13, and 15.5.

(2) It is tempting to view leadership-by-virtue as an early decision-making automation model. If a leader acts in the correct manner, people will instinctively follow their example without having to think or be told to do so. Freed of the necessity to waste time and energy second-guessing what the leader wants and finding creative ways of getting round petty rules and regulations, they will have greater capacity to make more informed decisions on how to deal with each specific situation they encounter. If, for example, a storm is brewing they will feel free to make the necessary preparations for it without having to wait for orders from the leader. In theory, AI should be able to further extend this model by giving people the information they need to make appropriate real-time decisions within a clear ethical framework. Let’s see…