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Confucian Strategy of Government

The Master said, 'If a man is correct in his own person,

then there will be obedience without orders being given;

but if he is not correct in his own person, there will

not be obedience given even though orders are given.'

-- Confucius, Analects, XIII: 6 (p. 119)

In this single brief passage, Confucius summed up the essense of the Confucian strategy of government. This strategy had two crucial elements: leadership through example, and leadership through indirection. Of these two elements of strategy, leadership through example is perhaps the more immediate; it is a point driven home time after time throughout the Analects. It is also an easily understood ideal. The second element of strategy, leadership through indirection, has leadership through example as its necessary precondition. It is also, by its nature, a more subtle concept. Even more than leadership through example, however, leadership through indirection expresses perhaps the most fundamental concepts of Confucian political philosophy. In the discussion that follows, we will look first at leadership through example, then at leadership through indirection, then at their relationship, and finally at what they say about Confucian ideals of government.

Leadership through example is a familiar concept in many traditions other than the Confucian. Modern Western military history and officer training, in both of which leadership is a major topic of concern, display frequent examples of the idea of leadership through example. Officer cadets and candidates are regularly taught to see to their men's needs before tending to their own. Outstanding examples of this style of leadership include Lord Nelson's "band of brothers," the term he used to express the close links he formed through example with the officers who fought under him at Trafalgar, and it is a subtest of his famous directive, "no captain can do very wrong who places his ship alongside that of th...

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