Confucius on Leadership - John Adair

Confucius on Leadership - John Adair

Want to know how knowledge from ancient China can change your way of leading and developing the company's organizational success? See Confucius' main ideas on the subject.

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Have you ever wondered why you can't complete specific demands, even when your planning is based on production methodologies? Many times the problem is simpler than it seems and has nothing to do with numbers!

We are talking about efficient leaders, who by managing a team appropriately lead them to business success, concerning the earnings of a company, and also personal success, considering the individuals in the group and their emotions in the process.

The book Confucius on Leadership brings together teachings from one of the most famous Chinese philosophers, Confucius, and today's leadership training expert, John Adair. Combining ideas and execution, we can get insights from millennial leadership and Chinese wisdom.

Are you ready to know the best strategies to be a successful leader? Let's understand together!

About the book “Confucius on Leadership”

The content of "Confucius on Leadership" brings the ideas discussed in "The Analects" to show which qualities are necessary to become a leader. It also brings, as a guide, a great name in the area of leadership to relate these teachings to our present time.

Published in 2018, the book contains 142 pages, distributed in 2 parts which are divided into 5 subtopics.

Who is John Adair?

One of the greatest names in leadership today, John Adair, is an international consultant and is considered one of the 40 people in the world who have most contributed to the development of the theory and practice of administration.

He has studied and specialized in renowned universities such as Cambridge, King's College, and Oxford. He has also written successful books such as: "Leadership for Success: “Stop Being a Boss and Become a Leader" and "How to Lead Effectively".

To whom is this book indicated?

Whether you want to improve yourself or need to change your way of working by dealing more effectively with everyday problems, this book will help you.

"Confucius on Leadership" details how leaders can be formed and help those who aspire to become one. Perhaps inside a business environment or outside of it, everyone should learn or improve their positive leadership.

The main ideas of the book “Confucius on Leadership”

  • What is leadership? What is the role of a leader?;
  • Operational success and the 3 circles: task, team, and individual;
  • How to do assignments efficiently;
  • How to form and develop a team;
  • The qualities of a leader;
  • The path to leadership.

Who is the Confucian philosopher?

Before we start this journey, we must understand from whom we are going to learn. Kung-Tzu (Master Kung), was born in 552 or 551 B.C. and lived in the Spring and Autumn period of China. He comes from a noble family but ended growing up in humble circumstances, working as a shepherd and later in a public office.

Chinese imperialism still reigned, and the philosopher was very much in favor of this hierarchical arrangement. However, this gave him a new perspective on leadership, as many were born into this position without knowing how to lead.

His teachings were diverse, and Confucianism is the result of this, but in this summary, we will focus on how he saw the importance of a good leader. It is worth mentioning that even today, his influence is seen, especially in Chinese society, with its massive economic power.

What does it mean to become a leader?

Words can be powerful tools to anyone who knows how to use them. And that is why we must comprehend the structure of the word leader if we wish to become one. Confucius believed that by understanding the meaning of something, you are putting value and a solid base to create conviction.

The author explains how we should understand three words that form the basis of what we will discuss here: leader, lead, and leadership. So, let's segment them and look at their meanings, as seen in the book.

The word "leader", later adapted to the Chinese vocabulary, comes from our language. It originated other segments, such as leadership, a term used as the presence of ability or occupation of a position of power. And finally, we have the word lead, which brings an idea of path and guide.

Now, putting into practice, how do we link them to pursue a sense of leadership strategy?

First, we have the leader (the person), then leading (to show the way), and leadership (ability and position of power). Put them together, and we result in the following statement: a leader is the one who takes the lead in guiding the way.

Now that we became aware of their meaning, we can begin the next steps. To explain and make a clear guide to what you should do in order not to be a boss but a leader.

How to obtain the company’s organizational success?

This secret is simple and simultaneously complicated because all you have to do is not to be a vase! There are many vases in our lives, and it is harder than it appears not to become one.

Chinese culture believes in the symbolism of words, so don't take what was said so literally. A vase is a hollow container where you poor liquid or dirt and has a specific function that represents, obviously, a specialization.

Because of this, on your path while specializing, you will face two options: remain a specialist, focusing on one type of knowledge, or change to a generalist, encompassing more distinct proficiencies.

Confucius believed that someone with power - a leader - should never be limited. He needs to be open-minded to everything that knowledge can offer. In this way, one should be able to embrace the complicated task of managing groups with internal demands.

These demands created by John Adair are divided into three circles:

  • Task, the act of completing the assignment in common;
  • Team, maintaining unity as a working group or team;
  • Individuals, acknowledge the individual needs that people bring to the work group.

Action Centered Leadership: Task, Team, Individual

Image made by: Jonathan Sandling


Everything the team must accomplish to grant results is embedded in the "tasks" part. The leader needs to apply them in a way the three circles affect each other positively, therefore some functions are necessary: setting goals, controlling, planning, and encouraging, among others.

In this section, an organization is essential. The goals must contain their final purpose, and from this, create attainable objectives for the group. The spirit of doing instead of just saying, is the basis for this plan to work, generating a good example that everyone must follow to bring commitment.

Remember that you must create a solid plan, but not plastered to the point of losing its flexibility. Because, many times, change is necessary.


A good leader is among those he commands, we know how the teachings of great generals are well regarded and strategic, but beyond that, they were good leaders for their soldiers, forming and passing on a sense of identification and community where the leader is not unreachable.

Thus, we create a well-integrated force that generates good results. It is not enough to have qualified people, but an environment where these select individuals complement each other, create relationships, and work towards the goal.

In this case, one must be careful, because the members shouldn't be too dependent on the leader. John Adair describes them as having an interdependent relationship, they must be able to function without a commander, but they work better with the presence of one.


Firstly, we must comprehend that each employee is an independent being in the leadership cycle. They have basic human needs that are achieved with their salary, therefore the person may guarantee his comfort and indispensable supplements.

Thus, make sure to give a reward for the service they provide. This involves promotions, don't be afraid to promote those who constantly prove their worth!

We will finish this segment by valuing the individual. If you listen to opinions inside your group, it makes the process of implementing new ideas easier since everyone was active in the decision. Without this step, you create a demotivated environment, because everyone wants to feel heard.

What are the qualities of a leader?


A leader needs to be enthusiastic to infect and influence everyone around him. According to the book, its etymology comes from enthousiasmos (Greek), which means to be possessed by a God or to be inspired.

It is possibly one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish, after all we are human, and there are times when we are anxious to get home and rest. So remember, having moments of demotivation and tiredness will not cause problems until it becomes the rule rather than an exception.

Analyzing this quality, we can see that being a leader is not restricted to the position one holds. We can often see people working in high hierarchical positions, but lack the enthusiasm that motivates the group.


The book points out the importance of the morality of an individual who puts himself in a leadership position. Confucius thought, integrity is the fundamental basis of every leader; it alone leads nowhere, but without everything done becomes futile.

Therefore, if you wish obtaining functionality and honesty from employees, start showing the same behavior. We can exemplify this idea with a Chinese proverb written in the book:

He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes.

Firm and demanding, but fair

If you found everything achievable so far, then let's shuffle your head with this part. How can we have these three characteristics simultaneously? And how do we know how to enforce that limit?

The answer to this is something simple: it is impossible! We take these words as truth, after all, you need to have the majesty to know that you must be listened to, tough to correct, and, at the same time, show yourself to be an easy and pleasant person to follow.

In theory, everything fits perfectly, but we know it doesn't happen this way. Leaders are not superhuman, so being tough with lightness and grace is almost a joke. But we can consider an example cited by the author, which follows an old Italian proverb:

By asking for the impossible, obtain the best possible.

This phrase applies to many areas covered in the book but is especially interesting when analyzed with more theoretical ones. What we should consider in this case is that everything revolves around balance, even if it is difficult to apply.


According to the Chinese philosopher, the one who leads should be the living example of kindness, a human quality that connects people. And a leader does just that, so this characteristic is considered quite virtuous.

The simple fact of being demanding to generate rhythm and consistency in the work does not mean that you should be cold and calculating.

If we take this quality away from the principles, then we will have a tyrant on our hands. One who forces taking power and deceives his companions, something extremely negative, but very realistic in view of what we have seen in our history.


Humility is a crucial quality for leaders as well for the team commanded. Arrogance, in this case, leads to disruption of the group and leaves it susceptible to individual desires. Thus, the final objective is forgotten.

We are talking about prioritizing the group over personal gains, removing the search for recognition, honor, or special reward that the leader may want for the team's benefit.

It is important to remember that humility is not self-depreciation! But rather, awareness of everyone's importance in the matter.

Books about humanized leaderships?

Reading Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is almost a must for any leader. Once again, the East has shown us an example of how to join strategy to an excellent leadership role.

A Brazilian author, Ligia Costa, wrote the book "Human Leader Generates Results" that shows the impacts of stress, anxiety, and burnout syndrome on a team, and how we can avoid these situations.

Finally, we have "The Kind Leader" by Karyn Ross, which shows how the concept of rigid and empathy-less leadership is no longer an actuality. It covers similarities to the Chinese philosopher's ideas, and it focuses on how to become a kind leader who is concerned about the welfare of people in addition to oneself.

Okay, but how can I apply this to my life?

The first step before any instruction is to have self-knowledge of your emotional control, plus understand what you excel at and which areas you are not proficient in. It is normal not to have all the qualities, but it takes perseverance and planning to change your behavior.

So how can we develop positive leadership?

  • Get feedback from your team. Trust is essential to know what your teammates think of you, making it easier to acknowledge what is missing and what does not need to change;
  • Analyze the motivation of each member. Providing a more personalized encouragement for everyone;
  • Have humility and empathy, but be objective, imposing limits when necessary. After all, there are bad employees, just as there are bad leaders.

Rate the book summary “Confucius on Leadership”

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Confucius on Leadership by John Adair