Confucius & Business Management

Confucius and Confucianism as a Model for Business Leadership

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‘What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others … ” “The injuries done to you by an enemy should be returned with a combination of love and justice


Confucius was among the earliest political and philosophical thinkers; and though he actually lived in the 5th Century BC, his impact and his vision have made a profound impression on the Chinese population, and upon all well-read, intelligent and informed peoples throughout the world for approximately 2,300 years (Mitter, 20043). The philosophies of Confucius stressed ethics, order, stability and morality. These are among the concepts that the business leader, the manager, should aspire to, and this paper will focus on that approach to business and management.

Confucius as Teacher and Statesman: Establishing a vision; stimulating people to gain new competencies.

Confucius had a great concern for education, and so historians say he started a school — but it was not at all like schools today. For one thing, only young men could attend, not boys, and not girls (Bledsoe, 1999). There was no homework, there were no books and there was no classroom; the wherever Confucius met with the students — most often in his own home.

According to Bledsoe’s article, Confucius considered “a virtuous character” even more important than the accumulation of knowledge itself — and he fully expected that the bright, alert young man of his time should have a grasp of history, philosophy, poetry and ritual. He also taught music, archery, rituals, arithmetic, charioteering and calligraphy. During the time of Confucius’ life, “a gentleman” was expected to be “balanced … [and] he should be as good an archer as a scholar.”

[In today’s business world, that vision would translate into the fact that a good manager should also be a good father, or a good manager should also be a good athlete, or a good neighbor, or a good musician — in other words, a well-rounded manager is more than just an effective leader at work, he or she also should have other avocations and talents to be fine-tuned and put to good use in the community.]

He taught by speaking in to groups or one-on-one; according to Bledsoe, Confucius taught a total of about three thousand pupils, and usually the largest group of students he mentored at a time was twenty-to-twenty-five. He asked pertinent, probing questions, “and expected students to find their own answers.” As all competent and visionary business managers and leaders of today should do, in order to motivate his following, Confucius used “encouragement rather than punishment or embarrassment.” And, as though setting an example for future managers, Confucius “insisted on honesty, alertness and hard work.”

Music, Confucius believed, “perfected morality,” and “rituals and ceremonies helped establish good behavior.”

The two goals Confucius set for his students were: 1) learning “jen” (compassion and respect for other people); “at home, to be courteous; in business, to be considerate; among friends, to be honest.” [“Jen” may seem simplistic, but it certainly could be printed out in large font and hung on the walls of managers in many offices world-wide.] 2. Confucius’ second main goal for students was to prepare them for government service; he felt that “good officials would create good government and that good government would make for a peaceful society with happy people.”

Confucius’ vision in this regard was awe-inspiring: he had a knack for preparing and administering difficult examinations, and those who passed his exams would then quality for government service. Officials who had been given their jobs through family (hereditary) connections would step aside and allow “men chosen for their wisdom and virtue” to take over those position. Though the leaders of China did not immediately accept these ideas for replacing bureaucrats with wise and virtuous people, “eventually they did, and Confucius is given credit as the inspiration behind China’s examination system.”

Hence, Confucius stimulated people to gain new competencies, and offered a vision for a better government, and indeed, a better world.

Overcoming obstacles and helping people to overcome failures

Confucius’ universal virtues, when followed, can help people — and certainly today’s business managers and leaders are included in this category — to overcome obstacles. First of all, his golden rule (written well before the “golden rule” in the Bible) is a good first virtue for a person managing a department store, or a small printing company, to adhere to: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others” (Dominguez, 2004). That is to say, if you expect your employees to treat you with respect and dignity, rather than with scorn and animosity, then do not treat them poorly.

His : “Wisdom, Benevolence, and Fortitude.” When asked about “benevolence,” he replied, “It is to love all men”; and “knowledge” he said “is to know all men”; and Confucius’ “perfect virtue,” Dominguez reports, is “Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness” — all of which should be an important part of the agenda of any business leader or manager.

Self-development, according to Confucius’ teachings, is set forth in this order, according to Dominguez: “Investigation of phenomena; Learning; Sincerity; Rectitude of purpose; Self-development; Family discipline; Local self-government; and Universal self-government.” Also, “The Ruler himself be virtuous, just, honest and dutiful … [and] a virtuous ruler is like the Pole-star which, by keeping its place, makes all other stars evolve around it.”

Confucius wrote many important works which are studied and utilized today in a number of societies — especially Asian societies. One of his more poignant and profound works is called the Analects (Lun Yu), in which his teachings — and some of his sayings as well as memorable sayings of his disciples — are to be retrieved. “The Analects is regarded as the most influential Confucian text” (Gard, 1999), and though it is not a continuous story, it covers brilliantly and succinctly the areas of virtue, moral cultivation, education, music and government. “Never disobey,” Confucius replied (Gard, 1999) when asked about filial piety.

Among the sayings from the Analects which offer a chance for business leaders to “lead by example,” the following serve well: “A person of true wisdom knows what he knows and knows what he does not know” [i.e., if you are a manager, you probably have a lot to learn from your employees, and if you open up to learning from others you will be well respected]. “A man who commits a mistake without correcting it is committing another mistake” [i.e., anyone can make mistakes, but it takes a quality person to want to correct that mistake, and show others he or she can correct the mistake with grace].

If further evidence is needed as to the influence of Confucian thought, in China today, “more than 2 million children are enrolled in programs teaching Confucian classics” (Mooney, 2002). This resurgence of Confucianism is also seen in the fact that several “major universities now in Chinese traditional culture.” And Confucian temples that have been “abandoned for the last half century” are not being refurbished and “draw crowds of students.”

Parents, apparently, want to see their children succeed, and become good citizens in the meantime: “My daughter has become much more polite since she started attending classes here,” said one mother, whose child is memorizing moral precepts by Confucius. An example of Confucian wisdom that the child memorizes is “Promote the straight and throw out the twisty, and the people will keep order.”

[That logic could well be used in business to help managers lead by example: if there is a “twisty” rule that everyone in the office finds offensive, an alert manager would surely “throw it out.” And if there is a rotten apple in the office, who always manages to throw a monkey wrench into a solid, progressive project, maybe the manager should throw him out, or at least remove him from the positive environment.]

As to how much value there is in children memorizing and reciting Confucius’ sayings, an official at the National Studies School in Beijing, Yuan Shiqui, is quoted in Mooney’s article: the preschoolers ” … don’t necessarily understand what they’re reciting. But gradually it will have an impact on their thinking.”

And in conclusion, what did Confucius mean when he wrote, “to know is to act knowledge”? He was likely referring to “moral and reverential behaviors” (Whittemore, 1999). This behavior “encompassed respect toward others as well as toward their cultures.” The combination of these behaviors … indicates the action of knowledge … ”

And knowledge, like respect, is a concept all business managers should embrace.


Bledsoe, Helen Wieman. “Confucius: Teacher and Statesman.” Calliope Magazine 10

(1999): 9.

Dominguez, J. “World Religions and 101 Cults: Confucianism, Confucius, symbols, the Jen.” 2004. 2 Oct. 2004

Gard, Carolyn. “The Analects.” Calliope 10 (1999): 28.

Mitter, Rana. “A short history of free speech in China.” New Internationalist 371 (2004):


Mooney, Paul. “Do Your Homework! Did Confucius say that? Lots of Chinese think so.”

Newsweek 27 May 2002: p51.

Whittemore, Robin. “To Know Is To Act Knowledge (Analects 2, 17).” Image: Journal

Of Nursing Scholarship 31 (1999): 365.