The importance of the historical use and misuse of the teaching of Confucius throughout the centuries in China can hardly be understated. While Confucian thought was on the outs with Communist intellectuals, others such as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore point to Confucius' principles as the secret to the Asian economic tigers' success. Leys, the translator of this volume, notes that Chinese familiarity and historical misuse of Confucius prejudices many, but taken without these prejudices, Confucius is thoroughly modern in his application today.
Confucius is known for being a great teacher, but it was politics and government that was his passion. Today, Confucius is a good source for leadership philosophy. Far from promoting authoritarian despotism, the teachings of Confucius point to a higher calling of leadership through service, character development, and self-abandonment - all sorely lacking in Chinese leadership today.
To learn was Confucius' calling. He said he did not have much innate knowledge and studied literature and history to learn (6.27). The responsibility of learning was on the learner not the teacher: "I enlighten only the enthusiastic; I guide only the fervent. After I have lifted up one corner of a question, if the student cannot discover the other three, I do not repeat" (7.8). While that may sound harsh, Confucius practiced what he preached. "Put me in the company of any two people at random-they will invariably have something to teach me. I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning" (7.22).
Learning was to be put into practice; this showed integrity. The first verse of the Analects says, "To learn something new and then to put it into practice at the right time: is this not a joy?" (1.1). Again, "Learning is like a chase in which, as you fail to catch up, you fear to lose what you have already gained" (8.17). Here we see the high value of action resulting from learning and not only study. He valued doing what you say. "There was a time when I used to listen to what people said and trusted that they would act accordingly, but now I listen to what they say and watch what they do" (5.10). Doing what you say is the heart of personal integrity. "A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words" (14.27).
Learning was his way of improving himself in order to govern well. Three major themes surface in Confucius' teaching regarding those who govern: be a gentleman, keep the rites and maintain your humanity. A gentleman was a moral superior, someone worthy of leading. A person becomes a gentleman not through birthright but through learning and right actions. These actions are called ritual, which is similar to courteous behavior, and maintaining humanity which is treating people with respect, dignity, fairness, justice and generosity to name a few of the qualities that Confucius praises. Ritual and humanity develop character in a person, and a person with character is the one whom Confucius calls a gentleman.
Confucius and his contemporary political and intellectual leaders wanted to make a name for themselves. In a way, they could live on through that reputation. "The Master said: `A gentleman worries lest he might disappear from this world without having made a name for himself'" (15.20). However, in making a name a leader must not do evil or act without virtue.
Official position was an obvious choice for ruling and making a name. Today, position is the most highly regarded form of authority all over Asia. Hear Confucius: "Do not worry if you are without a position; worry lest you do not deserve a position" (4.14). Again, "It is not your obscurity that should distress you, but your incompetence" (14.30). This is a powerful lesson for Chinese leaders to hear. Today too much emphasis is placed on leadership position, and not enough placed on competence and character. The results are personal empires, corruption, and incompetence that oppress those without power (position). "Before he gets his position, his only fear is that he might not get it, and once he gets it, his only fear is that he might lose it. And when he fears to lose it, he becomes capable of anything" (17.15).
The wisdom available to contemporary readers goes on and on. I found this book extremely helpful for finding ancient Chinese cultural leadership principles that back up the principles of transformational leadership theory and servant leadership theory. I would like to read and reflect deeper to find Confucian principles that are not yet apart of contemporary models of leadership, but are consistent with it. This is a deeper task.
Recently I have begun quoting Confucius during my leadership seminars. Although, a feel a bit dubious doing so - proof texting largely Western leadership principles with Confucius - the reaction from the participants has been enthusiastic. While many leaders are attracted to Western leadership theories, many also feel these theories are foreign. Many theories based on egalitarian social structure are foreign and are not appropriate for most cultures in Asia. However, some theories, working inside hierarchical social structures, are helpful but still smack of American "one, two, three" optimism. We are sometimes too brash and not mysterious enough, too left brained, in our presentations. Confucius has helped my audiences to embrace the principles I try to get across.
I was surprised how readable, useful and contemporary the writing of Confucius is to me as a leadership consultant. He had a good grasp of humankind, and set the bar very high regarding how leaders should govern from character and justice. He encouraged people to higher traits of humanity, that if followed would make the world a much better place. We would do well to study and apply the teachings of Confucius.