Confucius: Leadership Is Getting the Most Out of Time & People

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What’s the benefit of publicly admitting your mistakes? What’s the difference between working fast and working efficiently?

According to Confucius, leadership is the ultimate destination for knowledgeable and virtuous people. In The Analects, he explains how to gain knowledge and morality. Then, he offers practical advice on leadership itself.

Read more to learn Confucius’s leadership advice.

Confucius on Leadership

Confucius says that the main goal of his lessons is to turn you into an effective leader. According to Confucius, leadership requires you to be learned and moral. You also must realize your own potential and help others realize theirs. Confucius’s lessons about how to do this boil down to using your resources wisely. Time and people are two of a leader’s most important (and most limited) resources. Getting the most out of those two resources is the hallmark of an effective leader. 

Get the Most From Your Time

Confucius offers advice on how to use time wisely in both the short and long term to maximize productivity. 

In the short term, focus on your own duties each day; don’t interfere with others’ tasks except to correct their mistakes. Also, help other people spend their time wisely by being realistic about what they can accomplish in a day. If you assign them new duties, make sure you’re taking away other duties instead of just piling on more tasks and assuming they’ll all get done. 

(Shortform note: A common mistake leaders and managers make is assuming that people—including themselves—will be busy and productive the entire time they’re working. As a result, they plan more work than can reasonably be accomplished, and people either fall behind or get stressed and exhausted as they struggle to keep up with their workloads. One rule of thumb is to assign people and yourself around 80% of the workload you and they can theoretically handle, which leaves a comfortable buffer for mistakes, setbacks, and breaks.)   

For the long term, set big goals, then work toward them slowly and steadily. If you don’t plan for the future, you’ll constantly scramble to deal with crises in the present, which is stressful and inefficient. 

Finally, note that using time effectively doesn’t mean trying to get things done as quickly as possible—rather, Confucius advises you to take whatever time you need to do things correctly. Pay close attention to detail, and follow all applicable rules and procedures; don’t cut corners, and don’t allow your workers to do so either.

(Shortform note: Leaders and workers alike tend to start cutting corners when they feel stressed or rushed, or when they don’t understand why certain procedures and rules are in place. Therefore, to make sure that people (including yourself) are doing their jobs correctly, you’ll have to effectively manage their time and their workloads so they don’t become overworked. Also, if someone is frequently ignoring procedures, talk with that person to make sure they understand why those procedures exist and what could happen if they’re not followed.) 

Use Your Time Wisely By Prioritizing Your Tasks and Goals

In First Things First, Stephen Covey gives further advice for planning ahead and managing your time. First, he suggests writing down everything you know you need to do—whether short-term or long-term—and dividing those tasks into categories based on their importance and their urgency. Things that are both important and urgent, like a doctor’s appointment or a time-sensitive report, are things that you should do right away. For things that are important but not urgent, like big goals, schedule time to do them.

By following this prioritization method, you’ll handle most of your important tasks before they become urgent, meaning that you won’t be constantly racing to handle emergencies. Also, if an emergency does arise, you’ll have the time to deal with it. As a result, you’ll have more time to work slowly and steadily on tasks that are important but not urgent, such as your big goals. 

Get the Most From Your People

The essence of leadership is getting the best work possible out of your people. Confucius gives several pieces of advice on how to do so. 

Tip 1: Foster Trust

First and foremost, your people must trust you as a leader; otherwise, you won’t be able to accomplish anything. Confucius believes that trust is essential because not everyone will understand the reasons behind your orders. Therefore, you need to know that your people will do what you ask out of trust, even if they don’t understand why it needs to be done. 

Give Workers a “Why” to Increase Compliance

In Humanocracy, the authors echo Confucius’s emphasis on compliance: They say that compliance is the foundation of any organization. It’s the first thing you need to establish when building an organization because it’s impossible to run one if your workers don’t listen to you.

However, some experts say workers are most compliant when they do understand the “why” behind their orders. For instance, in Start With Why, Simon Sinek says that it’s very important for workers to understand the reasons behind what they’re doing. They at least need to know the organization’s overall mission and how they’re supporting it, if not the specific reasons behind every order you give. People who are passionate about a company’s mission will work harder, innovate more, and be more resilient in the face of setbacks and frustrations. This is because they’re working for a cause, and not just for a paycheck.

Tip 2: Set an Example

Second, trust will enable you to coach your workers effectively and correct their mistakes—if they don’t trust you, they won’t take your coaching to heart. Confucius suggests setting an example by publicly admitting and correcting your own mistakes.

Doing so will encourage your people to correct their mistakes without waiting for your orders. It’ll also stop people from resenting you when you do have to correct them because they know that you treat yourself the same way; they know that you’re not just picking on them.

(Shortform note: Some business experts would say that Confucius’s conception of leadership here includes elements of both management and leadership. According to these experts, management is about control: It’s the process of guiding people toward specific goals, which includes correcting their mistakes (as Confucius recommends). On the other hand, Confucius’s recommendation that you set an example by publicly admitting your mistakes is what these business experts would call leadership. They say that leadership is about inspiration and empowerment: You encourage people to want to do their best work rather than just doing as they’ve been told. Leading by example is a crucial part of leadership.)

Tip 3: Reward Your Workers

People also like to know that they’ll be recognized for their work. Therefore, reward your best workers with recognition, promotions, and bonuses to encourage them to continue doing good work for you. 

Confucius notes an additional benefit of this tactic: People who don’t get rewarded will either leave or strive to do better work in hopes of getting their own reward. Either outcome works to your benefit. 

(Shortform note: Rewarding your best people doesn’t just encourage others to follow their example. It’s also a sign that you notice and appreciate the work those people are putting in. When people feel appreciated at work, they’re more productive and less likely to quit. In other words, rewarding your best workers will make them even better workers and help you hold onto them for longer.)  

Tip 4: Be Honest With Your Superiors

Finally, Confucius notes, even leaders usually have people above them in the hierarchy, and it’s important that they trust you as well. So, when dealing with your superiors, speak honestly and frankly—prove to them that you’re trustworthy, and get them used to hearing you speak your mind.  (Shortform note: Speaking honestly and frankly with your superiors includes owning up to your mistakes. You might be tempted to hide your mistakes to protect your reputation, but admitting them and (if necessary) explaining how you intend to fix them can earn you a great deal more respect from higher-ups. Most importantly, you’ll develop the reputation for honesty that Confucius recommends cultivating.)

Confucius: Leadership Is Getting the Most Out of Time & People

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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