Leadership Lessons from Confucius: eight rows of dancers

eight rows of dancers

孔子謂季氏,「八佾舞於庭,是可忍也,孰不可忍也?」
When he heard that the head of the Ji Family used eight rows of dancers to perform in the ceremonies at his ancestral temple, Confucius commented: “If he is capable of that, what isn’t he capable of?” (1)

The higher you rise in your career, the easier it is to let your growing influence, power, and status go to your head and decide that the normal rules and conventions no longer apply to you.

Comfortably ensconced in your corner office, business class plane seat, or luxury hotel room, you can all too quickly divorce yourself from daily reality and lose touch with the concerns and challenges of your colleagues grinding away at the coal face. Perks and privileges soon become entitlements, and you devote a growing amount of your time and energy to accumulating more and more of them. As the famous maxim from Lord Acton so aptly puts it: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Confucius was by no means an egalitarian, but he shared Acton’s concern about how easily we can all be seduced by the trappings of wealth and power. While his criticism of Ji Kangzi for – gasp – using eight rows of dancers to perform at his ancestral temple instead of the four rows he was entitled to– may seem petty and pedantic to many observers, Confucius saw it as a potent symbol of the family’s growing usurpation of power in his home state of Lu.

As he points out, if Ji is capable of breaking this longstanding ritual convention that was traditionally the prerogative the royal family, he is more than capable of committing even more serious abuses of privilege and power.

While I’m sure that you’re not planning on holding any ceremonies featuring eight rows of dancers anytime soon, are there any other rules or conventions in your organization that you think no longer apply to you? If so, what steps should you take to deal with them? Not the easiest of questions to kick off the new week with!

Notes

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

(1) Only the emperor was allowed to have eight rows of eight dancers perform at ritual ceremonies. Feudal lords such as Duke Ai of Lu were permitted six rows, ministers like the head of the Ji Family four, and officials two.

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