Leadership lessons from Confucius: forging your own path

forging your own path

季氏旅於泰山,子謂冉有曰:「女弗能救與?」對曰:「不能。」子曰:「嗚呼!曾謂泰山不如林放乎?」
The Ji Family was setting off to carry out a sacrifice on Mount Tai. Confucius said to Ran Qiu: “Can you not stop this?” Ran Qiu replied: “I cannot.” Confucius said: “This is outrageous! Can it really be true that the spirit of Mount Tai has even less knowledge of ritual than Lin Fang?” (1) (2)

Leadership means forging your own path rather than following in the footsteps of others.

Although Confucius is criticizing the Ji Family for usurping yet another royal privilege by carrying out a sacrificial ceremony on the sacred Mount Tai, the clan’s real mistake is that by using the same tired method to project its prestige and power as many others it had no chance of standing out from all the other families contending for control of the state of Lu – much less replace the current ruler.

Instead of brazenly bending the existing rules, the Ji family would have been much better off setting new ones by, for example, working assiduously to improve the lot of the common people.

Chances are that by carving out a clearly differentiated position for itself, the family would have gained much stronger support for itself and been able to ascend the holy mountain as the legitimate ruler rather than the presumptuous pretender.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Mount Tai (泰山), located in today’s Shandong Province, is the most important of China’s five sacred mountains. During the time of Confucius, only the feudal ruler of the state of Lu was allowed to conduct sacrificial rituals on it. Hence the sage’s vitriolic criticism of the Ji family’s behavior.

(2) Confucius had a love-hate relationship with his follower Ran Qiu because of his close relationship with the Ji family, which was due in part to his great financial acumen. Ironically, it was Ran Qiu who persuaded the Ji family to allow Confucius to return from his years of exile to the state of Lu and provided him with financial support in his later years. Perhaps this dependency further fueled the sage’s resentment against him.

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

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