Leadership lessons from Confucius: shades of grey

shades of grey

Confucius said: “Guan Zhong had his limitations.” Someone objected: “Do you mean that Guan Zhong wasn’t frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know ritual?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew ritual, then who doesn’t know it?”

How to deal with larger-than-life characters who make outsize contributions to your organization? Do you call them out for their excesses or do you turn a blind eye to them?

Since Guan Zhong died over a hundred years before Confucius was born, Confucius had the luxury of being able to criticize him for his personal extravagance and contraventions of ritual without any repercussions.

Duke Huan of Qi, on the other hand, would have risked losing the most accomplished statesman of his age if he had taken any action to curb his behavior. Given that Guan Zhong turned his state into a veritable economic and military superpower, that clearly wasn’t a price that the duke was willing to pay.

How much easier it is to sit on the sidelines as an observer than to make the tough calls required of a leader. No decisions are made in black and white. There are always shades of grey.


This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Guan Zhong (管仲) was the chief minister of the state of Qi (齊) during the seventh century BC. He drove the implementation of a raft of political, administrative, and economic reforms that ultimately made Qi one of the most powerful and wealthiest states during the Spring and Autumn period (7771-476 BCE). Even though Confucius criticizes him in this passage, he strongly defends him in 14.16 and 14.17 of the Analects.

I took this image at the Confucius Temple on Nishan (尼山) – the hill on which, according to popular belief, Confucius was born and possibly even conceived. You can read more about Nishan here.

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