Leadership lessons from Confucius: self-interest and great resentment

self-interest

子曰:「放於利而行,多怨。」
Confucius said: “People who act out of self-interest cause great resentment.” (1)

Whenever you are about to make a difficult decision, take a step back and examine your motives before pulling the trigger. Have you chosen a particular course of action because it is the right thing to do or because it is in your self-interest?

When you have to make cuts to the travel expenses budget, for example, do you make sure that they are applied fairly across the board – including yourself? And when you are delivering your quarterly report to your boss, do you make sure your team members receive full credit for their contributions or do you spin the message to make yourself look good?

No matter how hard you try to disguise any self-serving behavior on your part, people will eventually sniff it out and resent you for it. Better to snuff it out yourself before they notice it.

Note

This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.

(1) The term 利 (lì) can also be translated as “gain”, “benefit”, or “profit”. A veritable legion of scholars, historians, and political commentators have blamed Confucius’s alleged disdain for profit as one of the key reasons why China fell behind western countries after the industrial revolution. While it’s certainly true that Confucius’s pointed criticisms of people acting out of self-interest and for their own advantage made business a much less respectable career for a young person to aspire to than becoming an official or scholar, the reasons for China’s economic and technological stagnation during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties were a lot more complex than that.

I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.

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