Leadership lessons from Confucius: on mentoring


Zizhang was studying with the aim of securing an official position. Confucius said: “Listen for as much information as possible, ignore anything that is suspect, and be cautious when talking about the rest; that way you will only rarely say anything out of place. Observe as much as possible, ignore anything that is dangerous, and carefully apply the rest to your actions; that way you will rarely have reason for regret. By speaking cautiously to avoid mistakes and acting carefully to avoid regrets, your career is set.” (1)

How to mentor raw talent? Do you directly criticize their weaknesses, or do you indirectly encourage them to improve certain aspects of their behavior? Confucius takes the latter approach with his bright but brash young follower Zizhang. Rather than taking a stick to him for his rashness and arrogance, Confucius dangles a carrot in front of him by counseling him to adopt a more low-key approach if he wants to get secure a government job.

Even though he never took an official position, Zizhang responded positively to Confucius’s approach by becoming one his most celebrated followers and going to establish his own school after the death of his mentor.

By taking time to understand the personalities of his followers, Confucius was remarkably effective in helping them to nurture their talents. As a result, many went on to assume senior positions in the courts of the feudal states that comprised China during that period while others like Zizhang and Zengzi set up their own academies to further explore and promote the teachings of their mentor.

How much time and energy do you focus on mentoring young talent? What processes do you have in place to help them develop? These are vital questions you need to address to enable the future growth of your team or organization.


This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 2 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) Zizhang was born into a poor family with no social standing and according to some sources was a convicted criminal. His seeming arrogance may have been his way of masking his insecurity about his status.

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

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