The ancient sage Confucius is enjoying a revival not just in China but around the world, especially on the education, social order and family business fronts in East Asia.
Confucian values include respect, perseverance, reliance on self, lifelong learning, and most especially, morality.
Sheh Seow Wah of the University of South Australia, author of “The Strategic Way: Lessons from the Chinese Strategic Thinkers,” discusses Confucian thought in Singapore Institute of Management’s magazine Today’s Manager.
“To a Confucian leader, morality is like the backbone of a man; without it, one is unable to stand upright,” says Sheh.
Sheh adds the leader will always uphold the highest moral sense.
“The biggest danger of a powerful person is the temptation to act willfully without regard for morality, compromising one’s sense of right and wrong. The Confucian leader is gentle in his behavior but firm in principles and thinking. He does not easily compromise his principles. A leader who does not uphold a high moral sense or value will not have moral authority over his followers.
“A wise leader would make sure the risk of any form of corruption or bribery [is] not commensurate with its returns. As the common Chinese saying goes, ‘If the upper beam is not straight, the lower beam will be crooked.’”
Financial scandals—from the US mortgage crisis, Samsung’s troubles, fake Tokyo Steel certificates, to the sexual harassment cases in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and elsewhere—signal that many leaders have lost their morality, in the Confucian sense.
“A wise leader understands that a sense of morality and humility must exceed the sense of profits,” says Sheh. “Otherwise, man will resort to unscrupulous means to achieve what he wants at the expense of others. A wise leader chooses to benefit others first before benefiting himself. If you take care of others’ interest, others will take care of yours.”
Sheh quotes another Chinese saying: “A leader must be the first to worry before bad times arrive, while being the last person to enjoy the fruits of good times.”
Unfortunately, all too often, the opposite case happens in reality. Many CEOs squander investors’ money on personal luxuries rather than being responsible stewards. Staff cuts often hit the weakest, even as salaries of top executives remain high even in retrenchment. Unscrupulous labor chiefs often put their own interests ahead of those they purport to represent. Entitled and incompetent heirs in family businesses treat company wealth as their personal bank, while paying just a pittance to employees who have been with them for generations.
Relationships are the hardest to manage in businesses, but they are the most essential. However brilliant or competent the people, if they do not work well together, the business will not last.
Tons of advice (including mine) abound about relationships in business, but the simplest—and most significant—is still the Golden Rule, Confucius’ most popular legacy: Do unto others what you would want others to do unto you.
“If you find that people around you do not treat you well, take a look at yourself,” says Sheh. “Look at the way you treat others. The way others treat you is your mirror—it naturally reflects all images … If we want to correct or change others, we must first correct or change ourselves.”
Managers complain about lazy subordinates, followers gripe about mean bosses. We are quick to take credit for successes, but blame others when things go haywire.
This Chinese New Year, let us try to act the way Confucius would have deemed fit.
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