Leadership lessons from Confucius: you can lead a horse to water

you can lead a horse to water

When Confucius recommended that Qidiao Kai should seek an official position, he replied: “I’m not ready to be trusted for such a responsibility yet.” Confucius was delighted. (1)

How to react when a colleague, friend, or family member refuses to accept your advice? Do you urge them to reconsider their decision or are you happy to let them follow their own path?

Even though Confucius is certain that his follower Qidiao Kai should pursue a career in government service, he decides not to press the issue. Indeed, he is happy that Qidiao has the modesty and self-awareness to conclude that he is not ready to take on such a heavy responsibility at this stage of his life.

As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” No matter how strongly you believe that someone should follow a particular course of action, you should not only give them the space they need to make up their own mind but also fully support their decision.

Qidiao Kai went on to become a highly-renowned Confucian scholar and set up his own school of thought. Perhaps, and this is only speculation of course, Confucius already knew that this was the path that Qidiao was destined to go down. His suggestion that Qidiao become a government official therefore may simply have been subtle attempt at reverse psychology with the aim of nudging his follower into figuring out what he really wanted to do with his life.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) This is the first and only appearance of the follower Qidiao Kai in the Analects. You can read more about him here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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