Leadership lessons applied to a terrible leader
Confucian leadership is — like much non-dualistic thought — a paradox. Here’s how Confucius described an ideal leader:
Is Shun not an example of someone who ruled by means of wu-wei? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper [ritual] position facing south, that is all. (15.4)
This sounds like a useless leader, just sitting in some useless direction, thinking reverent thoughts. This is the paradox of wu-wei, often translated as ‘doing nothing’. But you cannot translate non-dualistic ideas into words, it’s like asking what color a rainbow is. A wu-wei leader is also doing everything. They’re in perfect harmony with their social and cultural world.
Think of it as the conductor of an orchestra. They make no sound and, indeed, appear useless; waving their ritual stick around. But they hold the whole symphony together.
This would be a Confucian leader. So learned in virtue, so restrained by ritual, so cultured that they would innately know the pulse of their ministers, their people, their nation. They keep time, connecting ancient wisdom to the present, shaping the future. While appearing to do nothing, they would actually be holding everything together.
Confucius responded, “To ‘govern’ (zheng 政) means to be ‘correct’ (zheng 正). If you set an example by being correct yourself, who will dare to be incorrect?” (12.17)
When asked about any particular issue: litigation, robbery, punishments, laws, Confucius’s answer is the same. Get your own house in order and the nation will follow. This is an older theme running through even more ancient texts. “The theme of personal perfection on the part of the potential ruler radiating out to encompass the family, the state, and then the entire world is developed in the opening of the “Great Learning” chapter of the Record of Ritual.”
The then leader Ji Kangzi asked if he could speed up this process by cutting off some heads and Confucius responded,
12.9) “In your governing, Sir, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The Virtue of a gentleman is like the wind, and the Virtue of a petty person is like the grass — when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend.”
Leadership is like wind moving over the grass. This was how Confucius viewed good governance. But what if the wind blows COVID-19?
The desecration of ritual
Confucius is constantly mentioning ritual. It seems hopelessly dated. Bowing before one climbs a dais rather than after. Running immediately to respond to a summons, even if your carriage has to catch up to you anyways. He’s obsessed with this stuff. When asked what his first priority would be if he was in government he says, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names”. It seems pointlessly arcane.
But then I thought of today. Are we so different? What is a press conference, if not ritual? What is the signing of a bill, if not a rite? What are laws but words, and power but names? Isn’t ritual just what we call norms? What has Trump shattered more than what we consider normal?
In a ritual entry to his ceremonial home, Trump climbed the White House steps and removed his mask. This was the breaking of ritual, which Confucius would have viewed with horror. Ritual is in many ways all we have to protect us from COVID-19. Wear a mask. Quarantine when sick. Listen to doctors and experts. All rituals that Trump shattered in that one ceremonial climbing of the stairs.
If a leader breaks ritual, Confucius would say there’s no hope for the common people. An age without proper ritual, what we call norms, is a fallen age. What Confucius called names was simply using the right words for things, saying a lord took a horse rather than borrowed it. He was a pedant about this because from a leader’s speech reality itself flows.
“If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves.” (13.3)
What is America now but a land where the common people don’t know what to do with themselves? Trump has destroyed what language means, obliterated norms, and the empire is in disarray as a result. Confucius didn’t even like the use of the color purple over vermillion. He would have been horrified at this orange man.
Confucius’s view of leadership was all about the virtue of the leader (and his advisers). A leader restrained by ritual (norms) would be attuned to their ancestors. They would attract worthy subordinates, and model good behavior for their subjects. As Confucius said, “Raise up the straight and apply them to the crooked, and the people will submit to you”.
Trump of course is the opposite. He raises up the crooked. He disdains all norms. He makes no effort to improve himself. Trump is in that sense the most anti-Confucian leader possible. Wicked, uncultured, unrestrained, and — in a word — petty.
As the later commentator (150 BCish) Dong Zhongshu said, “Urgently pursuing morality and being constantly concerned about whether or not one is able to transform the common people is the mind of the great person. Urgently pursuing wealth and profit, and being in constant fear that one’s coffers will go empty is the mind of the petty person.”
Could anything more directly describe the mind of Trump? A petty person in great debt; given great power, leading to the complete dissolution of an empire. This warning has been written throughout the ages. Monkey see monkey do.
I cannot imagine a state actually governed by wu-wei, but I can see one governed by its opposite. Confucius is always going on about goodness, rightness, and the Way. Trump is going the other way. Trump has made himself irreverent and faced North. Certain ruin, Confucius would say, will follow.
Indeed, it already has.
Well worth reading:
CONFUCIUS. Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Translated & Annotated) (Hackett Classics). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.