Leadership Lessons from Confucius: mini-clones


Confucius said: “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions. When the father is dead, watch his son’s actions. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.”

One of the most dangerous risks you can take as a leader is to surround yourself with people who think and act the same way as you do. This not only shuts out diversity of opinions and thoughts, but it also leads to a “yes-man” culture in which the path to career advancement is built on keeping the boss happy.

When the time finally comes for you to retire, it also means that the talent pool to select your successor from will be limited to mini-clones of you. Appointing one may give an illusion of stability, but the person who is given the role will inevitably suffer from negative comparisons to you. Better to develop a wider pool of potential candidates to choose from or even to bring in someone from outside to take a fresh approach.

Although Confucius encouraged open discussions among his followers, he was a hard-core conservative when it came to the family as his injunction that a good son should follow the traditional three-year mourning period after the death of his father shows. Even during his lifetime this ancient tradition was honored more in spirit than practice because very few men had the time, money, or inclination to spend such a long period in virtual isolation from normal society.

Ironically, for all his bluster about filial devotion, Confucius was hardly a model paterfamilias himself. All the (admittedly sparse) evidence that exists about the marriage between Confucius and his wife Qiguan (官氏), suggests that it wasn’t a particularly happy union and that it may have ended in divorce. His relationship with his only son Boyu (伯魚), or Kong Li (孔鲤) as he is more formally known, is believed to have been quite distant as well.


This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

The image above is of the shrine honoring Confucius’s wife at the Temple of Confucius in Qufu. You can read more about the temple here.

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