Leadership lessons from Confucius: between the two extremes

Temple of Yan Hui

子曰:「攻乎異端,斯害也己。」
The Master said: “Focusing your attention only on the extremes will lead to nothing but harm.” (1)

How to make sense of what is really happening on the ground when our media and social media channels are filled with loud screeching voices proclaiming the end of the world as we know it and demanding instant solutions to an infinite number of “existential” crises?

One answer to this question is to refuse to let yourself to get sucked into this cacophonous vortex. By all means read what people are saying, but don’t get caught up in shouting matches with them that will leave you shaking with rage and frustration – not to mention none the wiser as to what is really going on. Remember that the easiest way for people to get noticed is to say something extreme, even if they don’t really mean it. Better to simply to let it go and walk away.

A second answer is to spend more time talking to people and – much more important – listening to what they tell you. That way you will be able to pick up the nuances that no word can ever capture or convey. In most cases, you’ll find that the truth of what you are trying to make sense of lies somewhere between the two extremes.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) There are heated scholarly disputes over the meaning of this chapter, particularly the phrases 攻 (gōng) and 異端 (yìduān). 攻 generally means “to attack” but also “to specialize in” or “focus on” in certain cases. I have chosen the latter option for my translation.

異端 is open to an even wider interpretation. I have translated it as “extremes” – but it could also be rendered as “wrong end/angle” or even, if you believe the conspiracy theories that Confucius is attacking other philosophical schools in this passage, “heterodoxy” or “heresy.” If you prefer that option, the passage could be translated as “to specialize in some heterodoxy is harmful.”

Another image of the Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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