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Lao-Tzu’s and Confucius’ Ideas on Leadership Essay

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Updated: Aug 9th, 2021


Traditional philosophies have a significant impact on modern people’s values and, importantly, shape their attitudes toward social interactions. The art of leading others belongs to a number of the most widely discussed philosophical concepts, and recommendations for leaders are presented in the works by Confucius and Lao-Tzu. Similar in their celebration of good intentions, these two schools of leadership are greatly divided in opinion concerning the need for action, educating followers, authoritativeness, and role models.

Lao-Tzu: Non-Action and Humility

It is impossible to imagine the civilized world without the concept of leadership, one of the pillars of human society. The ideas of leadership and the responsibilities of those who decide to assume such roles have come to the attention of people many centuries ago. In chapter 3 of Tao Te Ching, a fundamental Taoist text, Lao-Tzu expresses his opinion on the features of good leaders and the devastating effect of desire on society and people’s mental condition (par. 10). From the perspective of this philosopher, too much attention is often attracted to differences between people, be it “superior abilities,” property that is “difficult to procure,” or other sources of envy (Lao-Tzu par. 10). Due to the existence of such tendencies, many individuals overestimate the benefits of having something that is associated with superior positions over other people.

From the philosopher’s words, it is possible to conclude that it is the responsibility of a leader to distract followers from harmful thoughts and, therefore, prevent unnecessary competition. He sees the spread of knowledge in human society as a negative phenomenon that should be controlled and reduced by leaders (Cao and Weber 65). Thus, “the sage” ensures the well-being of his people in the following way: he “empties their mind, fills their bellies,” and “weakens their wills,” which is probably a reference to people’s animal nature (Lao-Tzu par. 11). The author seems to view the influence of a good leader as a kind of constraining factor that eliminates any social risks by reducing the desire and preventing actions ignited by knowledge.

The notion of effective leadership proposed by Lao-Tzu has nothing in common with popular modern concepts that emphasize the role of initiative and motivation. Instead, Tao Te Ching defends the idea that “to take no action is to avoid extra and counterproductive actions” (Ma and Tsui 15). From the text being analyzed, it is clear that some leaders can see the sovereign good in the creation of strict rules that should be respected to avoid punishments. Emphasizing selflessness and self-abandonment, Lao-Tzu encourages leaders to avoid distinguishing themselves from the crowd to respect the principle of equality (Ma and Tsui 15).

To him, when these ideas become the basis of a leader’s strategy, common followers gain “freedom to follow their honest and simple natures” (Ma and Tsui 15). In Taoist thought, effective leaders should reduce the impact of any factors that distract people from “following the nature of things” or the Tao (Liu 755). Therefore, Taoist leadership is rather symbolic as it is not maintained by the introduction of stringent prohibitions and strong dominance hierarchies.

Confucius and Virtue Leadership

Confucius is another philosopher whose ideas still impact modern Asians’ opinions about leadership, education, and knowledge. In the Analects, the thinker expresses his understandings of the most effective practices for leading others (Confucius par. 2). Unlike the previously discussed philosopher, Confucius is open to the spread of knowledge (in particular, the cardinal virtues and the sense of conscience) (par. 2). Based on his works, the latter can be listed among the most effective ways of leading people and, in the parlance of our time, it helps promote positive change in mindset.

Confucius sees the necessity to use the threat of punishment as a barrier to proper behavioral education. According to him, this strategy does not produce “the sense of shame” (Confucius par. 2). Instead, if too much attention is paid to formal laws, people start following these rules but do not understand their deep meaning. To put it in other words, their real intentions do not change since they have no “sense of shame,” and their obedience turns out to be forced and deprived of conscientiousness (Confucius par. 2). Taking this into account, it is possible to say that Confucian leadership focuses on virtue, proper moral education, and mutual respect.

In Confucian thought, effective leaders should act as role models for their followers. To follow the principles presented by this thinker, people who lead others are expected to make themselves into the avatars of virtue (Silva 2; Ghosh 243). In particular, it is among their key tasks to “demonstrate the values of seeking self-perfection through learning, meditation, and self-reflection” in order to inspire followers (Ma and Tsui 15). In the school of thought being discussed, potential rulers are expected “to strive toward near-perfect behaviors” since leadership is built upon “the respect and trust” (Stone et al. 31). To sum it up, Confucian leadership is based on the promotion of positive values, efforts helping to transform people’s behavior, and the superiority of virtue over the threat of punishment.

“Wind” and “Water”

The two schools of thought discussed in the previous sections tend to emphasize different abilities of leaders when it comes to effectiveness. However, there is one important similarity between them in terms of promoted values. Both Lao-Tzu and Confucius regard unselfishness as a distinctive feature of people who are capable of leading others (Ma and Tsui 15). At the same time, it is quite evident that in the models of leadership proposed by both philosophers rulers have positive intents. In spite of these similar traits, their views on maintaining order are greatly different.

The sets of principles proposed by Lao-Tzu and Confucius are extremely dissimilar when it comes to the need to change the values of followers. In Tao Te Ching, being a good ruler involves “leading people through a simple life and natural behavior,” which means that people are good by nature (Sahertian and Graha 4). In contrast, the work of Confucius highlights the necessity to use “the rules of propriety” to help people “become good” (par. 2). Therefore, the philosophers are of mixed opinions concerning the purity of human nature.

The most appropriate degree of authority and the form of leadership are also the aspects that need to be analyzed to understand the differences between the discussed philosophical ideas. Along with rejecting an idea of the cult of personality, the founder of Taoism compares a perfect leader to one of the natural forces, water (Ma and Tsui 15). A good ruler is similar to water that is “soft and pliable,” but “can attack and destroy what is hard and stiff” (Ma and Tsui 15).

Based on this idea, successful leaders manage to guide people and remain unseen. Interestingly, Confucius sees nations and rulers as “the grass” that “bends when the wind blows upon it,” which is indicative of his active approach to leadership (Liu 753). Using these metaphors, the philosophers introduce two important methods of leading others: passive with the emphasis on non-action and active or promoting positive transformation.

Implications for Government

The ideas about leadership under analysis have numerous implications for the authorities since they outline the principles of maintaining order. To some extent, both strategies are represented in contemporary practices of leading. For instance, modern China is believed to be a society dominated by the key values of Confucianism such as benevolence, collectivism, and “high moral expectations for the governors” (Liu 753). Following a Taoist model of leadership, those in the position of power are expected to reduce inequality and respect the principle of non-interference, which involves the absence of rigid control.

In the modern world, it is possible to imagine both models used for governing some organizations, but not entire countries. The philosophers’ principles of leading people are still in use now since similar thoughts are expressed by the authors of more modern leadership theories. For instance, concepts similar to Lao-Tzu’s ideas are presented in such non-authoritarian models as laissez-faire, servant leadership, and authentic leadership (Ma and Tsui 14; Yan and Hafsa 248).

Contemporary approaches to governing people that are similar to Confucianism include more authoritative approaches such as transformational and paternalistic leadership (Ma and Tsui 14). Importantly, in terms of ruling people of the twenty-first century, Confucianism is regarded as a more practical set of beliefs than Taoism. This is because the latter is believed to provide “ambiguous recommendations” interpreted in a variety of ways (Ma and Tsui 22). These models, however, can be combined and improved in order to meet the needs of modern people.


In the end, numerous differences exist between the ideas of leadership expressed by Lao-Tzu and Confucius in their sacred texts. The incompatible principles of action and non-action in teaching people give rise to dissimilarities in the degree of authoritativeness. Apart from that, the opinions about the appropriateness of role models and the need for change are to be analyzed to understand the conflict between the schools of thought.

Works Cited

Cao, Feng, and Caterina Weber. “Pre-Qin Daoist Reflections on the Xianneng.” Journal of Chinese Humanities, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, pp. 65-90.

Confucius. “Confucian Analects.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. 2018. Web.

Ghosh, Koustab. “Virtue in School Leadership: Conceptualization and Scale Development Grounded in Aristotelian and Confucian Typology.” Journal of Academic Ethics, vol. 14, no. 3, 2016, pp. 243-261.

Lao-Tzu. “Tao Te Ching.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. Web.

Liu, Peng. “A Framework for Understanding Chinese Leadership: A Cultural Approach.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, vol. 20, no. 6, 2017, pp. 749-761.

Ma, Li, and Anne S. Tsui. “Traditional Chinese Philosophies and Contemporary Leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, 2015, pp. 13-24.

Sahertian, Pieter, and Andi Nu Graha. “Exploring Leadership Dimensions Among Organizations (the Analysis Against Leadership Excellence Based on Cultural and Ethnical Backgrounds in Indonesia).” Indian Journal of Commerce and Management Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-7.

Silva, Alberto. “What is Leadership?” Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-5.

Stone, Glenn, et al. “Alternative Perspectives on Leadership: Integrating Transformational Leadership with Confucian Philosophy.” Open Journal of Leadership, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 30-38.

Yan, Li, and Taïeb Hafsi. “Philosophy and Management in China: An Historical Account.” Management International, vol. 19, no. 2, 2015, pp. 246-258.

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