Leadership Lessons from Confucius: nurturing leadership talent

nurturing leadership talent

Confucius said of Zijian: “He is a true leader! If there were indeed no leaders in the state of Lu, how would he have reached this level?” (1) (2)

Are great leaders born or made? While there’ll probably never be a definitive answer to that question, creating an environment that promotes personal growth and development can certainly help people to acquire the necessary skills and attributes for taking on a leadership role.

For all his vitriolic criticisms of the ruling class of his home state, Confucius had no doubt that Lu was the ideal place for breeding and nurturing leadership talent because it adhered more closely to the rituals and culture that characterized the golden age of the Zhou dynasty than any other state of China. Because it provided young men with a strong moral and academic education, not to mention the opportunity to learn from many experts and role models, Lu produced a constant stream of young talent that served the governments and ruling classes of states throughout the whole of the empire. Indeed, Confucius and many of his followers were highly sought after and worked in senior capacities for a veritable “who’s who” of dukes and nobles.

Thanks to its glowing reputation as a center of ancient Chinese learning and culture, Lu was able to punch well above its weight in its relationships with the much larger and stronger nearby states. Arguably, this made it made it the first state in history to exert soft power – thousands of years before the term was invented.


This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) This is the only time that the follower Zijian is mentioned in the Analects. He was 49 years younger than Confucius and became famous for the unorthodox leadership style he adopted as chief magistrate (宰/zǎi) of Danfu (單父) in modern-day Shandong province. You can read more about him here.

(2) Confucius may also be indirectly criticizing Duke Ai, the ruler of Lu at that time, for his failure to make full use of all the rising young talents that were available to him.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple. This is the oldest and most beautiful Confucius Temple on the island.

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