Leadership lessons from Confucius: the first libation

first libation

Confucius said: “Once the first libation has been performed at the sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor, I don’t want to watch the rest of the ceremony.” (1)

Do you really want to stick around for the rest of an event when you know it’s about to descend into a squirm-inducing fest of self-congratulation and status-signaling? Of course, some people may accuse you of being impolite, but why waste your precious time watching the great and good spouting self-serving platitudes on the stage when you could be doing something more productive?


This article features a translation of Chapter 10 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) The sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor was one of the most important events on the annual ritual calendar in ancient China. According to the tradition, the ruler of the state of Lu presided over the first part of the ceremony until the libation honoring the imperial ancestor had been performed. Once that was over, high-ranking officials would take over the rest of the proceedings and often fight with each other to make sure that they secured what they saw as their rightful position in the limelight. Even though he know that it wouldn’t win him any friends, Confucius saw no point hanging about to witness such self-seeking and disrespectful behavior.

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

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