Leadership Lessons from Confucius: smooth talk and an affected manner

子曰:「巧言令色鮮矣仁。」
Confucius said: “Smooth talk and an affected manner are seldom signs of goodness.” (1)

How do you deal with the sycophants that inevitably gravitate towards you like bees to a honeypot when you reach a leadership position? It’s easy enough to dismiss them for their “smooth talk” and “affected manner” as Confucius does in Chapter 3 of Book 1 of the Analects, but much more challenging to create a culture around you that doesn’t stand for such behavior in the first place.

Confucius was extremely effective in building an open culture among his followers and students thanks to his charismatic personality, deep knowledge of Chinese traditions, plain-spokenness, and the extraordinary empathy he showed to the needs of every individual that came within his orbit. Indeed, his leadership abilities were so strong that many of his followers retained very close ties with him after departing for new pastures, and some were so loyal that they nearly died when accompanying him during his wilderness years in exile.

The qualities that made Confucius so successful in building up his own following proved highly counterproductive, however, in his dealings with the rulers and officials in his home state of Lu and the other states that he visited during his exile.

His charismatic personality was all too easily be perceived as threatening by ministers and bureaucrats worried about him taking their jobs. The alacrity with which he lectured people about the minutiae of the ritual ceremonies was intimidating to those he accused of violating them, and his plain-spokenness ruffled the feathers of more than a few key people who might otherwise have been willing to support him. For all the empathy and patience that he displayed towards his own followers and students, Confucius was remarkably tin-eared when it came to interacting with the senior members of the ruling class and high-level officials in the bureaucracy.

While one of your core responsibilities as a leader is to build an open culture that gives people around you the freedom to speak their mind and engage in vigorous debate, you also have to be able to adjust your communication style to be sensitive to the different needs of other parties that you deal with outside your organization.

Although Confucius’s rants against the glibness, incompetence, and perfidy of the ruling class and their hangers on are highly entertaining, his inability to work with them effectively cost him his chances of achieving his ultimate dream of restoring China to the golden age that reigned at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty. (2)

What price would you be willing to pay for acting in the same way?

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) This chapter is repeated in Chapter 7 of Book 17. The rest of the Analects is littered with admonitions from Confucius against flattery and fakery, including Chapter 5 of Book 5, Chapter 3 of Book 12, and Chapter 4 of Book 16.

(2) Although many leading political figures sought Confucius’s advice and granted him audiences when he visited them, none of them were willing to offer him a senior position in their government.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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