Evergreen Reminders by Confucius for Leaders

Evergreen Reminders by Confucius for Leaders

by
Rebecca Siow

Vice-President, Knowledge & Solutions, Human Capital Leadership Institute

In celebration of Chinese New Year, HCLI turns to the Chinese culture for some timeless reminders on how we can live and lead better. As discovered in our research, Leadership Mosaics Across Asia, traditional Chinese culture is rooted in Confucianism. Sifting through notable sayings by this great philosopher, Confucius, we have picked out three for us to ponder more deeply about.

“As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances.”

We recognise that our world is changing. Perhaps for some of us, our changing world is not welcomed because it appears that it is changing for the worse. In fact, in conversations with clients, we are starting to hear the word ‘fragmentation’. Fragmentation because political events such as Brexit and the US Presidential Election of 2016 put globalisation and societal identities under the microscope. Fragmentation as technology reshapes industries and business models, facilitates the gig economy, and likely causes employees’ ties to organisations to fray. Fragmentation within individuals as they grapple with these macro developments, and wonder ‘what does this mean for me’ and ‘where is my place in the world’.

Here is where Confucius offers a gem of wisdom: “As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances.” As individuals, we may not be able to control or shape macro developments (“the vessel” that we are in). Yet, we can adapt ourselves to the circumstances. This calls for agility – and more importantly, a positive mind-set. At HCLI, we have learned from leaders that in facing a changing, uncertain world, it helps to prime our minds with the belief of ‘I will be proven right’, versus ‘I do not want to be wrong’. The latter consists of two negatives, and will hinder us from taking risks and improvising along the way. On the other hand, the former is a positive belief statement that emboldens us, and helps us create possibilities and persevere despite difficulties. 

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.”

As the world changes, it is even more important to realise what we do not know. Ironically, great leaders are humble and eager to learn. A regional chairperson (Asia Pacific) of a US multinational corporation once shared with HCLI an observation of great leaders: the ability to accept that they do not know all the answers and asking questions is more important than having the answers. This clearly mirrors Confucius’ saying that real knowledge starts with knowing the extent of our ignorance, or what we do not know.

Subsequently, when we become aware of our ignorance, what should our next step be? We suggest that you listen. Have dialogues, not debates, with others. Dialogues explore and start with you inviting others: “Tell me more. I don’t think I completely understood. Help me out here.”

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”

As our world attempts to find its equilibrium again, perhaps between fragmentation and integration, the question we ask ourselves is: how? Based on the Confucian saying above, it begins with us setting our hearts right.

Interestingly, HCLI’s recent research, Us and Them: Leading in a Season of Populism, points to the same insight. To prevent our world from fracturing further, leadership responsiveness is key. The really great leaders are those who care for their people, and they put the needs of others above their own. They demonstrate such care even when under pressure, and when the people they are caring for do not even know. Their hearts are not set on personal glory or gratification, but on service and stewardship for future generations.

This Chinese New Year, in the midst of the feasting and festivities with your children, nephews, nieces, and other members of future generations, would you also pause to ask yourself, “What is my heart set on?”

The answer to this question (and the ones above) may help you and others to live and lead better.

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