Confucius argued that ren–translated variously as “perfect virtue,” “goodness,” or “humanity”–is the primary qualification for leadership (Luo, 2012). Indeed, the Analects is full of sayings that support the idea of a leadership by example.  When the Chief Minister of the State of Lu asked him for advice on governing, and dealing with crime, Confucius seems to imbue the concept with almost supernatural powers:

To govern means to be correct. If you set an example by being correct yourself, who will dare to be incorrect? If you could just get rid of your own excessive desires, the people would not steal even if you rewarded them for it. In your governing, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The virtue of the superior man is like the wind, and the virtue of a small person is like the grass–when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend. Confucius, The Analects, 12:17-19

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The Roman Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus echos these sentiments:

Do not expect to enjoin right-doing upon men who are conscious of your own wrong-doing. Toward subjects one should strive to be regarded with awe rather than with fear. Reverence attends the one, bitterness the other.Musonius Rufus, Fragments 32 & 33

The research on the power of leadership by example is generally positive. Yaffe and Kark (2011) found evidence to suggest that leaders’ attempts to behave as “good citizens” of their companies may directly and indirectly influence their subordinates’ attempts to do the same. Jahnke, Haddock, and Poston (2014) found that firefighters were more likely to comply with safety and health practices when fire chiefs and company officers modeled the desired behavior. In an ingeniously-designed experiment, Potters, Sefton, and Vesterlund (2007) found that followers contributed  more in a game when the identified leader did so. Interestingly, in all three cases, the effectiveness of leadership-by-example relied on the leader signaling: that is, not only did the leader have to provide a good example, but he or she had to signal followers in some way that such behavior was important to him or her.


Jahnke, S. A., Haddock, C. K., & Poston, W. C. (2014). Leading by example: The role of leadership in firefighter health. International Fire Service Journal Of Leadership & Management, 843.

Luo, S. (2012). Confucius’s virtue politics: Ren as leadership virtue. Asian Philosophy, 22(1), 15.

Lutz, C. E. (1947). Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Potters, J., Sefton, M., & Vesterlund, L. (2007). Leading-by-example and signaling in voluntary contribution games: an experimental study. Economic Theory, 33(1), 169-182. doi:10.1007/s00199-006-0186-3

Yaffe, T., & Kark, R. (2011). Leading by example: The case of leader OCB. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 96(4), 806-826.