Leadership lessons from Confucius: a fine line

a fine line

子曰:「道不行,乘桴浮於海。從我者,其由與?」子路聞之喜。子曰:「由也好勇過我,無所取材。」
Confucius said: “If the way doesn’t prevail, I’ll take a raft and put out to sea. I’m sure Zilu will come with me.” When he heard this, Zilu was delighted. Confucius said: “Zilu is much braver than I am, but he brings no materials to make the raft with.” (1)

There’s a fine line between engaging in friendly banter and making a hurtful comment. Confucius just about manages to stay on the right side of it with his dig at Zilu for his impetuousness, but the margin is at best a very fine one. Surely, his faithful follower deserves at least a pinch of gratitude from the sage for his eagerness to give up everything he’s doing and accompany Confucius on a perilous voyage to almost certain death!

Presumably Zilu accepted the comment in the light-hearted spirit that Confucius probably intended, or he had become so thick-scanned after years of criticism from the sage that he didn’t let it bother him. Still, the chances are other followers with a more sensitive disposition would have been upset by the comment if it had been directed at them.

While it’s important to maintain an open and friendly atmosphere in your organization, you do need to draw the line somewhere and make sure that everyone understands that one person’s idea of a joke may be regarded as offensive or exclusionary by others.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) There are many different interpretations of this passage. Rather than seeing Confucius’s final comment about Zilu (無所取材) as a light-hearted joke, some Chinese and Western commentators have tried to make it sound more serious by suggesting that the character 材 (cái/materials) should be replaced by the homonym 裁 (cái/to judge), as in: “He (Zilu) does not exercise his judgment upon matters.” Given that Confucius was very fond of Zilu, one of his most loyal followers, this is very doubtful in my opinion. You can read more about Zilu here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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