Servant Leadership and Confucianism

Leadership practices are taught around the world, largely influenced by psychology, business management, and social sciences, while moral and ethical approaches are left by the wayside. The main ideas and concepts for servant leadership are; Honesty, integrity, trust, empowerment of others, modeling, and service. This is an examination of servant leadership and how it applies to Chinese culture and religion. The ethical practices and behaviors of leaders have come to the forefront of examination for many. These leaders are under a magnifying glass in business practices.

To understand the correlation that will be drawn between servant leadership and the religious beliefs of Confucius we need to examine what Confucianism is. According to Hacket, and Wang, 2012. Confucianism is made up of four texts:

“The Analects”, “The Mencius”, “The Great Learning”, and “The Doctrine of the Mean”. Among these texts, two are considered the most fundamental to Confucian ethics: “The Analects”, which records the teachings of Confucius; and “The Mencius”, wherein Mencius, an ancient Confucian thinker, interprets and expands on the work of Confucius (Chan, 2008; Wong, 2008). Together, “The Analects” and “The Mencius” discuss more than 50 virtues, including the five cardinal virtues of Ren (humanity), Yi (righteousness), Li (the rituals), Zhi (wisdom), and Xin (truthfulness; Xing, 1995). These five virtues are considered cardinal in the sense that all other virtues are founded in them (Huang, 1997).

Confucianism practices the virtues of; humanity, righteousness, rituals, wisdom, and truthfulness. Confucianism is an ethics, ideology, worldview, tradition, and a way of life. Confucianism is all-inclusive, a way of understanding, and centered on human well-being and spirituality. There are many similarities of servant leadership and the teachings of Confucianism. Confucianism practices moral values much like servant leadership. These virtues or morals are very similar to what the servant leadership model emphasizes; trust, integrity, and empowerment of others. “The best Chinese leaders display a distinctive and effective way of negotiating complex environments. They do so in such a way as to create a harmonious result in which all parties are at least reasonably satisfied with the result” (Lau 2012, pp.1). Other characteristics of servant leadership are “morality, love, altruism, kindness, charity, compassion, goodness, perfect virtue, true selfhood, benefiting others as Confucian servant leadership style” (Han et al., 2010). When looked at as a whole servant leadership and Confucianism are very similar with only a few minor subtleties.

While Confucianism and servant leadership are similar there are also some differences between the two. Example of the difference would be; if someone were to do something wrong for the greater good of others, than in Confucianism it would be a distorted right because it was to help others. As where with a servant leader if something was done that was morally wrong it would still be morally wrong despite the reason. Confucianism seems to be more forgiving when looking at the whole picture, while servant leadership still has the sternness of if it is wrong it will always be wrong. “Cheung and Chan (2008) suggested that magnanimity and sensitivity to other people including subordinates, keeping promises and justice are the virtues of Confucian leadership. (Han, Kakabadse, Kakabadse, 2010, pp.8). So while the Confucianism style does practice truth, and integrity, it also comprises of human compassion and the balance between right and wrong.

Servant leadership can be applied to various populous despite culture, religion, and practices. China is just one of the many countries uncovering the benefits of servant leadership. Traditionally China has a hierarchy of governing politically, socially, and in business. In Chinese culture there are four different social classes, Shi is made up of scholars and officials, Nong are farmers and peasants, Gong are artisans, and Shang are the merchants. Along with the different social classes, China has slightly different values than that of a servant leader. The Chinese believe in something called ‘filial piety, or respecting parents and grandparents. Children are traditionally expected to be obedient to their father and mother for their whole lives, even allowing parents to decide which college they attend or what career they choose.” (Centanni, 2018, para.2). This also gets transferred over to business practices, “Research on paternalistic leadership has increasingly flourished within the past forty years. The vast majority of research on paternalistic leadership focuses on the conceptual model and the outcomes of paternalistic leadership” (Lau 2012, pp.1). China has a way of turning their everyday values and practices into strengths in a business or organization.

Besides these different social structures, China has a more traditional business structure that also is hierarchy. It is easy to see the differences presented in traditional hierarchies and the servant leadership practice. Chinese culture, as it aligns with the teachings of Confucianism. “suggested that magnanimity and sensitivity to other people including subordinates, keeping promises and justice are the virtues of Confucian leadership. (Han, Kakabadse, Kakabadse, 2010, pp.8) So even though there is the hierarchy as in most businesses China can see the significance of keep subordinate employees happy and fulfilled to increase the output of work from employees.

That being said there are two contradicting ideas between Chinese business and servant leadership. Servant leadership can at times fall short when too much focus is placed on the well being of a single or group of employees over that of a company. A servant leader if taken to the extreme can become blind to the end goal of an organization, and end up focused purely on the followers. “A servant leader might be more concerned with the needs of followers without considering other issues. Servant leader might do what is best for his followers without considering the higher values of truth, justice, peace, compassion, and human dignity”. (Lynch, Friedman, 2012, para.9). If a servant leader is more concerned with its followers it can lose sight of larger issues, such as regulation of products or services, profits, or correct removal of waste.

All of which can be very detrimental to any organization. There is a fine balance for servant leadership and Confucianism; they are both great practices until it hits a tipping point of becoming detrimental to a business. When a business or organization is going out of the way and putting jobs, products, sales, and services to the back burner, that said organization may not be able to keep the doors open to offer the employee a place to work.

The growing need for servant leadership and moral practices in the work place is coming to fruition, “Research on paternalistic leadership has increasingly flourished within the past forty years. The vast majority of research on paternalistic leadership focuses on the conceptual model and the outcomes of paternalistic leadership” (Lau 2012, pp.1). While this growing trend of an ethical and moral workplace has still a long way to come, it may be beneficial to certain businesses over others. Trust, integrity, group awareness, and involvement, are always good staples of a relationship between employer and employee. When a business starts to lose sight of those factors is when it is headed for troubled waters. More over this is why servant leadership and Confucianism can be used to benefit a company if done in the right practice and near perfect balance.


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