Leadership Lessons from Confucius: succession management

Temple of Yan Hui, Qufu
Temple of Yan Hui, Qufu

Youzi said: “A person who practices filial and fraternal devotion is unlikely to question the authority of their superiors. Such a person will never provoke disorder. A leader focuses on the root; once this takes hold the way appears. Filial and fraternal devotion is the root of goodness.”

Confucius was a master of talent development, training thousands of students and followers (1) who went on to take official positions and run businesses in the patchwork quilt of states that comprised China during his lifetime. (2)

When it came to succession management, however, he dropped the ball with his failure to anoint an heir to Confucius Inc before he passed away at the age of 72 in 479 BCE. This was not for lack of trying, but he probably lost heart when his protégé, the mystical Yan Hui, died at the age of just 32, leaving him utterly devastated.

The death of Confucius left a vacuum at the top that a number of young pretenders among the sage’s followers fought to fill. Two of the most notable of these were Youzi (有子) and Zengzi (曾子), who are given the honorific title of Master You and Master Zeng in some English translations of the Analects.

Because of his close physical resemblance to Confucius, Youzi was the early frontrunner for the sage’s mantle, which is probably why he manages to appear in the second chapter of the Analects. Think about this for a moment: it’s quite a stunning feat of editorial skulduggery!

Unfortunately for Youzi, however, he quickly lost the support of the other surviving followers of Confucius when they figured out that his intellectual abilities came nowhere near to matching those of the departed sage and sent him off packing to set up his own school.

The musings of Youzi in Chapter 2 of Book 1 of the Analects provide a clue as to why they jettisoned him. Although Confucius talked about the importance of filial and fraternal devotion, he never went as far as describing it as “the root of goodness.” Indeed, it wasn’t until the early Han Dynasty emperors carried out a huge promotional push behind the concept of filial devotion in order to legitimize their newfound authority that it came to be regarded as a core “Confucian” value.

Youzi’s rival, Zengzi, was an even more passionate advocate of family values, publishing the no-doubt rip-roaring Classic of Filial Devotion (孝經/xiàojīng). Perhaps not entirely coincidentally he too failed to assume Confucius’s mantel, though he was much more successful than his counterpart in establishing his own school and promoting his own thoughts.

Ironically, Confucius’s failure to anoint a successor was probably instrumental in preserving his name and teachings for posterity. Without the scrambled efforts of Youzi and Zengzi and their followers to hack together the wisdom of the sage in order to bolster their own legitimacy as his heir, the Analects would probably have never come into existence. How’s that for the law of unintended consequences? (3)

The point of this piece is not to say that you should forget about succession management, but that you should never underestimate how challenging it can be to replace a  leader even for far bigger and more sophisticated organizations than Confucius Inc. Just look at how Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Jack Welch fumbled it despite having such brilliant minds and making such extensive preparations.  As with making a battle plan, succession planning is a task that you need to do even though you know that it will become obsolete the moment into contact in contact with reality.


This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) It is traditionally believed that Confucius taught over 3,000 students during his lifetime. According to the great Chinese historian Sima Qian (司馬遷), Confucius said that only 77 of them were able to master his teachings. The Analects features quite a number of his most loyal disciples as they are often known as. I prefer to use the less formal term of followers.

(2) Confucius lived during a very turbulent time of Chinese history known as the Spring and Autumn period (771 – 446 BCE), during which multiple feudal states fought with each other for supremacy. The social, political, and economic instability that these conflicts caused led to what is often described as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy, in which the Hundred Schools of Thought flourished as intellectuals and philosophers promulgated their ideas.

(3) Even though Confucius was widely-known and highly-regarded during his lifetime, he certainly wasn’t perceived as the towering philosophical and moral giant that he has been portrayed as for most of Chinese history. He has followers like Zengzi and Youzi to thank for that – not to mention Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty who turned his thought into a state-sponsored ideology.

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

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