Leadership lessons from Confucius: context is king

personal development path

Meng Yizi asked Confucius about filial devotion. Confucius said: “Never disobey.” While Fan Chi was driving him in his chariot, Confucius told him: “Meng Yizi asked me about filial devotion and I replied: ‘Never disobey.’” Fan Chi asked: “What does that mean?” Confucius replied: “When your parents are alive, serve them according to ritual. When they die, bury them according to ritual and make sacrifices to them according to ritual.”

Context is king. This is the lesson from the two exchanges that Confucius has in the fifth chapter of Book 2 of the Analects. In the first one he keeps his answer to the question from Meng Yizi (孟懿子) about filial devotion as curt as possible with his admonishment to “never disobey.”

Since Meng was the head of one of the Three Families that were the real power behind the throne in his home state of Lu and notorious for holding over-elaborate ritual ceremonies to display their influence and wealth, in all likelihood Confucius didn’t see any point in wasting his time by going into further details on the subject. It was not as if Meng would follow his advice anyway.

When describing this incident to Fan Chi (樊遲), an enthusiastic though not particularly bright follower, Confucius decided it was worth spending more time to dive deeper into the topic in the expectation that Fan would benefit from his explanation and strive to be a more filial son.

As a leader, your time is precious. Best to focus your attention on people who are willing to learn from you rather than trying to convert the unconvertible.


This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 2 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

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

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