Be the rooster

Mozi on leadership

A simple Chinese “proverb” transformed my credo for leadership — an interaction between the sage Mozi and his student.

The student asked Mozi a simple question:

“When is it proper to speak?” Mozi replied, “Toads, flies, frogs—they make noise constantly, and no one listens to them. But in the morning when the rooster crows everyone listens, and everyone goes to work. So when you speak, you don’t need to say much, just make sure you say it well.”

Mozi lived in China in the 5th century B.C.E. and he seemed to have one of the first utilitarian approaches to being, and subsequently leadership, because he thought that actions should be measured by the way they contribute to the "greatest good of the greatest number."[1] 

His teachings were in opposition to Confucianism, which became the adopted approach of the state, because he was more concerned with the benefit of actions as opposed to the duty to humanity and virtue that Kongzi (Confucius) espoused. Mozi’s leadership philosophy is articulated in the Mozi, a posthumous work of his teachings compiled by his followers:

If one does not preserve the learned in a state he will be injuring the state; if one is not zealous (to recommend) the virtuous upon seeing one, he will be neglecting the ruler. Enthusiasm is to be shown only to the virtuous, and plans for the country are only to be shared with the learned. Few are those, who, neglecting the virtuous and slighting the learned, could still maintain the existence of their countries.[2]

Mozi was a pacifist who was also an expert in fortification, and because he lived during the Warring States period military strategists within the different kingdoms in China sought his counsel. But, perhaps ironically, while he was providing strategic advice he was simultaneously pleading for peaceful solutions to conflicts.

Mozi's influence, or Mohism as it is referred to, waned soon after his death, as Confucianism became the prevailing philosophy throughout China. Even so, Mohism briefly reappeared in the early and mid-twentieth century, after a two millennia hiatus, as Sun Yat-Sen's Republicans and later the Communists adopted elements of his teachings to fit their ends.

Kongzi's approach to leadership was grounded in a combination of deontology, which posits the existence of moral obligations, suggesting that people ought to live by a set of defined principles that do not change merely as a result of a change in circumstances[3] and, to a certain extent, teleology, like Mozi, which states that questions of right and wrong are answered by focusing on whether someone's conduct will produce desirable consequences.[4]

Whereas Mozi was perhaps the first utilitarian, Kongzi trumpeted altruism and somewhat paradoxically, ethical egoism. Confucianism's order in society results from a familial network that depends on a hierarchical framework. As long as leaders and individuals in the network behave virtuously, there is ethical reciprocity and altruism.

But there is still a power distance between the paternal emperor perched at the top and those below him, and to a certain extent, ethical egoism plays into a leader's psyche in Confucianism. His survival is based on his reciprocity to the people. But if his motives are disingenuous and self-centered, there is only God above him to whom he must answer if the people are unable to see through his motives.

So how do Mozi and Kongzi fit into my philosophy of leadership?

In the proverb, Mozi's parsimonious response to his student signifies that the relentless cacophony of daily life is just noise to be tuned out, the more it is heard the more meaningless it becomes.

But the rooster crows only once and everyone responds unconsciously, as a matter of fact.

Effective leadership carries the same kind of weight; its essence is singled out above the noise and naturally calls for a willing, unhindered response. It recognizes that the leader and follower are a unified whole, that one cannot exist without the other. They represent a positive reinforcing causal loop that orbits around good will.

Likewise, if a leader or follower injects excessive egoism into the equation, and seeks to lead based on negative pretenses, the system will spiral into entropy and the leader-follower paradigm will degrade, losing its balance and constancy.

In some ways the teachings of Mozi and Kongzi are embodied in the five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. EI (or EQ) is simply self-actualized wisdom of the ancients re-encapsulated into contemporary leadership psychology.

Adhering to EI’s hallmarks is the result of applying this wisdom, an individual recipe consisting of a variety of ingredients that are mixed and seasoned over time. Knowledge, experience and an ontological understanding that human intentions must be grounded in benevolence to achieve a satisfactory sense of being are essential components of individual wisdom that translate into strong leadership.

Further, the dynamic between leader and follower is one of self-actualization. A leader who recognizes his role as a follower naturally transfers the character of their leadership into those who choose to subordinate to them.

In turn the subordinates digest the framework for transforming others in their network and, ultimately, are easily able to reverse roles with the leader. In this sense leadership becomes an unconscious dance of unity where strengths are utilized, and weaknesses are left out of the equation. Competency expands through the power of the interrelationships on the team.

“Everyone has each other’s back,” and the effective leader will always strongly support, in multitudinous ways, those who follow him in good faith.

Mozi speaks to the characteristics of the superior man, a man that represents the grounded ability of a natural leader. The concept is expressed in this excerpt from the Mozi:

I have heard it said: It is not that there is no peaceful abode but that I have no peaceful heart (over others' homelessness); it is not that my wealth is not sufficient but that my passion yearns for more (to improve others' conditions). Therefore the superior man is strict with one's self but lenient with others (in matters of conduct) while the multitude are lenient with themselves but strict with others. The superior man carries out his ambitions successfully in action and studies the situation when he is at leisure. Even when he is taken as a mediocre individual he feels no dissatisfaction. This is because he has self-confidence. Therefore, those who attempt what seems difficult to them will obtain what they desire, but few who aim at what they desire can avoid what they dislike.[5]

Mozi’s superior man is a self-actualized leader. If one’s philosophy of life mirrors this passage, leadership is a given. Success cultivating the self is measured by the quantity of providence directed toward others who haven’t reached self-actualization, whether they strive for it or not.

The superior man, as leader, also recognizes that the standards he holds are different from the standards of the multitudes. He does not boast or seek to promote himself. He simply works to capitalize on his abilities in a way that can provide the greatest amount of good. 

Mozi’s utilitarian approach to leadership is still based in altruism, inasmuch that utilitarianism is a more sophisticated, higher-grade altruism, because it holistically recognizes the greater good.  

So, what is leadership? There is no complete definition. It is something that exists on a continuum. It has been articulated in the wisdom of the ages across every continent in nearly every interaction. It is transcendent. Everyone seeks to unlock the keys to its understanding.

But it is right there in front of us, and within us, cultivated in every choice we make. Achieving leadership skill is a simple proposition: recognizing that leaders and followers are one in the same, and ultimately interchangeable in the end.

Leadership is Mozi’s rooster. It crows once and everyone intuitively responds, working together toward a greater good.


[2] Chinese Text Project, The Mozi,


[4]Northouse, Peter G.,Leadership Theory and Practice, Sage Publications, 2004

[5] Chinese Text Project, The Mozi,