Many people look to modern exemplars of business leadership such as Steve Jobs when trying to figure out how to approach their work. However, it is important not to discredit some of the most ancient wisdom surrounding leadership, much of which still applies to the modern day. One of the most respected philosophers of all time is Confucius, who laid the foundations of Confucianism 2,500 years ago. Confucius emphasized the importance of practicing moral values, and many of the lessons that he gave are still meaningful to modern business leaders. Following are some of the important business leadership lessons we can learn from Confucius.
Lead with wisdom, fairness, and compassion.
In the Analects, the collection of his teachings, Confucius often explains that leaders forget to take care of the people who follow them. When leaders focus on wealth or glory, they become distracted from what really matters, and loyalty begins to wane. This tendency can come to a head in times of crisis, when leaders put themselves before anyone else. This behavior alienates employees, who are at the heart of any organization. Great business leaders realize that they are nothing without their employees, and they demonstrate this understanding through their actions. Leaders need to give credit where it is due and to express appreciation for the people who have contributed to the company’s success. When leaders care for the people around them, those individuals begin to worry less about their position at the company and focus on their work, which ultimately drives productivity.
Reflection is necessary for true wisdom.
While people do not often associate excellent leadership with a capacity for reflection, Confucius called it the noblest way of learning wisdom. Reflection allows leaders to think critically about their decisions and behavior, then adjust their behaviors to guide themselves toward success. Importantly, reflection does not just mean critical thinking, for which the ultimate goal is solving a problem. When reflecting, individuals must understand how their beliefs and assumptions drive their decisions and influence the type of leaders they become. In the end, reflection makes leaders more mindful of how their actions impact others and why they may lean toward making one decision over another. This consideration often leads to better decisions in the long run. Reflection does not require a significant time commitment. Research has shown that even 15 minutes of self-reflection each day boosts a leader’s performance.
Consider your options and take decisive action.
Confucius once advised someone who would think three times before taking action to hesitate only twice before doing something. The story illustrates the importance of not taking too long to act and thinking through decisions before finalizing them. Executives will experience difficulties when they do not think through their actions at all before doing something and also when they spend too much time in thought and miss out on opportunities. While business leaders need to weigh all their options and develop market intelligence, they should not put more emphasis on those processes than on making decisive decisions, especially when market conditions are ideal. Leaders who hesitate will miss out on opportunities, while those who do not think through decisions put their organizations at risk.
Respectful relationships are a key driver of business.
Understanding the importance of respect, Confucius pointed out that our ability to develop relationships is what distinguishes men from beasts. Too often, the importance of relationships becomes lost in the business context, particularly in the Western world. However, business leaders excel when they recognize the importance of interpersonal relationships and make developing them a key focus of their work. The Chinese term for relationships is “Guanxi,” and it is a stated belief that Guanxi has become a sort of “second currency” in business in the country. Business leaders in China understand that developing relationships and doing people favors means that they will be returned in the future. Respect is what underpins all of these business relationships and provides a safety net should a company face difficult times.
Virtue is the most important quality of a leader.
According to Confucius, virtue is more important to mankind than either water or fire. In Confucianism, virtue is a core principle. In this view, acting ethically in all your business dealings should take precedence over making money. While Confucius was not against commerce, he would explain that everyone benefits when business is conducted ethically. In American popular culture, a similar idea exists. Consider the disdain people expressed for John Thain of Merrill Lynch, who earned money through scamming, versus the continued love for people like Oprah Winfrey who earned their money ethically—and often even by helping people. Similarly, business leaders who act unethically will cause issues among their employees, who may become distrustful or even disdainful. Ethical leaders, however, develop a committed, diligent workforce. Ultimately, ethical action is the path toward real wealth.