Leadership lessons from Confucius: sarcasm


When someone asked Confucius to explain the meaning of the sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor, he replied: “Whoever knows that would rule the world as easily as I can place this here.” Then he pointed his finger towards the palm of his hand. (1)

Sarcasm is a weapon that should be used sparingly – not least because there’s a real risk that your audience won’t pick up on your true meaning.

It can also be highly counter-productive. Although Confucius’s frustration at the abuse of the ritual governing the sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor is understandable, lashing out at some innocent bystander doesn’t help him gather any support for fixing the issue. With his intemperance, he doesn’t exactly create a convert to his cause.

In situations like this, the best course of action is to pause and take a deep breath before saying something you might regret.


This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Confucius was considered by many of his contemporaries to be a bit of a blowhard, including people in influential positions. Outbursts like this went a long way towards confirming their view that he lacked the temperament for a senior official position.

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

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