The Way of the Sage: Constant Learning, Harmony and Consensus

Until now Confucianism has a huge impact on several Asian societies such as China, Korea and Japan. That’s why – if we want to understand the Asian way of thinking, we need to understand the teachings of Confucius. Now, what is that all about? Well, the goal of this philosophy is to become a “sage within”. According to Confucius we can do that by keeping on learning. But here comes the tricky part: learning is not done for the sake of attaining knowledge, but rather to show you how to lead an ethical lifestyle.

He calls this “self-cultivation” – character development, talent development and the refinement of one’s humanity. You need to work hard to become a better person. But the good thing is that you don’t have to do it on your own. In the Confucian way, the so-called “way of transformation”, people constantly co-create new ways of working together and, in turn, bring out the best in each other, learn from each other, and benefit each other. They establish unwritten rules – norms – which act as a guide for behavior and teach them what to do and not to do to be a good person.

Other people serve as role models, but is is your own job to figure out whose behavior is desirable. We should follow these people, learn from them and adapt their behavior. But often the other way round works even better: by looking at those who are not acting in a positive way, we can learn exactly what not to do. Confucius says that whenever we meet someone like that, we should not criticize him or her but instead look inward and figure out whether we are any better. That way we are forced to look critically at ourselves all the time.


Doesn’t sound tough enough to you? Well, just wait:  there’s more. Confucius also says that we should not demand anything from other people, we should only demand something from ourselves. And this is interesting, because as with everything else, Confucianism also strives for harmony and balance.

While we should not put any demands on other people, we should always be open for their input and never make decisions without first considering their perspective. Leaders are not alone – they should always seek feedback from their colleagues, learn from it, but never depend on it.

In that sense, leaders need to listen well enough so that their decisions reflect the interests of the community as a whole. To understand the distinction between the individual and the community can be quite tough. Yes, the community has a shared interest which a leader needs to determine, but at the same time she also can not neglect the opinions of the individual team-member.

Again, striving for harmony should be the number one goal. Leaders should not make decisions which could potentially damage the relationships and the trust among team-members. The best case scenario is that the final conclusion is made based on consensus.


The rules for discussions should be based on unwritten norms, not policies and regulations. Confucius said: “Lead people with governmental measures and regulate them by law and punishment, and they will avoid wrongdoing but will have no sense of honor and shame. Lead them with virtue and regulate them by the rites, and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, set themselves right”.

In other words: do not enforce rules unless really necessary. Instead let people create the rules together – whether purposely or not. They will happily follow rules which they have created themselves. It’s quite impressive, isn’t it? Confucius understood more than 2000 years ago that using norms and values (corporate culture), instead of policies developed by top-management, works wonders.

When people develop these rules for behavior together, they create an environment of trust – and this is what Confucius was always striving for. Everybody’s opinion should be respected – nobody’s should be favored. Follow all these suggestions and you will create a win-win solution. Not one person will be the winner of the discussion, but the whole group. You will create an environment in which everybody has an important role to play and where they are able to improve themselves.

Okay guys, that’s all for today. If you want to learn more about the teachings of Confucius, I recommend reading “Confucianism” by Ronnie Littlejohnn – the book that inspired me to write this article.

I also invite you to discuss about Confucianism and its teachings in the comment section. What do you think is important for expats to understand about it in order to get a more clear understanding of the Asian culture? What interests you about Confucianism and what ideas do you find difficult to grasp?



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