Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the meaning of virtue

Confucius said: “Zilu, there only a very few people who understand virtue.”
子曰:「由,知德者鮮矣!」

Perhaps it is true that very few people understand the meaning of virtue as well as you do. Perhaps it is true as well that you have the responsibility to call them out for their failings. After all, unlike the benighted masses, you genuinely care for the future of our planet and are out there every day fighting for a better world. So what if it is from the comfort of your air-conditioned apartment using your smart phone?

Except, of course, you know deep down that your understanding of virtue is no better than anyone else’s. You are just better at signaling it to your friends, colleagues, and the millions of other people throughout the world desperate to imbibe your wisdom on the latest cause du jour.

At least for now that is. Because you are becoming increasingly worried that you are losing your ability to keep up with the dizzying pace with which the meaning of virtue is changing. In your darkest moments you worry that you have fallen into a trap that not even the most fulsome apologies for your wrong think in the past will enable you to escape from with your hard-won career and reputation intact.

Perhaps it is time to stop criticizing others for how they lead their lives and focus on getting the most out of yours. Perhaps in doing so, you will discover the path to understanding the true meaning of virtue.

Notes
This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) Confucius did his political career more harm than good with his sharp criticism of the moral failings of the elite because it meant that nobody of any importance was willing to work with him to deliver much-needed reform to the decaying Zhou dynasty system. Even if he was correct in his diagnosis of the problem, he was spectacularly unsuccessful in finding a cure for it. Perhaps he was just as much a thief of virtue as everyone else was.

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.