Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the golden rule of reciprocity

Zigong asked: “Is there one single word that can guide you through your entire life?” Confucius said: “Should it not be reciprocity? Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

Never treat people in ways that you would not wish to be treated. This is a simple idea in theory, but a very difficult one to put into practice. How many times have you voiced your annoyance after being forced to wait for ages at a supermarket checkout line or berated one of your staff for missing a deadline? Or lashed out at someone online for making a dumb comment? It likely made you feel good at the time, but later on you probably found yourself wondering whether you could have handled things better. Conflict is not exactly conducive to a positive outcome in any situation.

Perhaps the best way to control your emotions is to take a deep breath before you open your mouth or type on your keyboard so that you can regain your composure. Life’s too short to waste on unpleasant and ultimately futile encounters.

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) This is a reprise of the so-called “golden rule” of reciprocity first expounded by the follower Zigong in 5.12:

Zigong said: “I wouldn’t want to do to others what I wouldn’t want them to do to me.”

Confucius offers rather elaborate variants of the rule in these discourses in 6.30 and 12.2:

“Good people help others get on their feet while establishing their own career; they help others to achieve their goals while achieving their own objectives. By standing in other people’s shoes, it can be said that they’re on the right track to goodness.”

When Ran Yong asked about goodness, Confucius said: “When you are away from home, act towards everyone as if you are meeting an important guest. Manage people as if you are conducting a great sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. Allow no resentment to enter your public affairs; allow no resentment to enter your family affairs.”

The follower Zengzi also mentions reciprocity in 4.15:

Confucius said: “Shen, my doctrine is all woven into a single thread.” Master Shen replied: “Indeed.” After Confucius had left, the other disciples asked: “What did he mean?” Zengzi said: “The doctrine of the Master is based on loyalty and reciprocity; that’s it.”

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery in Qufu.


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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.