Leadership lessons from Confucius: an allowance of grain

an allowance of grain

子華使於齊,冉子為其母請粟。子曰:「與之釜。」請益。曰:「與之庾。」冉子與之粟五秉。子曰:「赤之適齊也,乘肥馬,衣輕裘。吾聞之也:君子周急不繼富。」
When Gongxi Chi was sent on a mission to the state of Qi, Ran Qiu requested an allowance of grain for Gongxi’s mother. Confucius said: “She should receive a measure.” When Ran Qiu asked for more, Confucius said: “She should receive a double measure.” Ran Qiu gave her five double measures. Confucius said: “Gongxi Chi is traveling to Qi with sleek horses and fine furs. I’ve always heard that a leader helps those in need; he does not make the rich even richer.”

The more successful you become, the more you feel entitled to special treatment at no extra personal cost. That’s why frequent flyer and VIP guest programs for airlines and hotels have become so extraordinarily popular. Who doesn’t enjoy having access to exclusive lounges, fast check-in and boarding privileges, and occasional upgrades just for flying a certain number of miles on the same airline? And who would say no if you were offered a free luxury weekend getaway in an exotic resort simply for staying in your favorite hotel chain whenever you hit the road. Despite what others might believe, business travel is hard work. You’ve earned your little treats, haven’t you? You’ll certainly never succeed in prising my precious Eva Air gold card away from my cold-dead hands!

The irony is, of course, that once you get locked into such a program you soon become dissatisfied with the basic benefits and start pushing for more privileges that you don’t even need in the same way that Gongxi Chi demands far more grain for his mother than she’ll ever be able to eat.

As with so many things in life, maintaining a balanced perspective is the key. The next time your airline tells you that an upgrade isn’t available because the flight is packed, be grateful that it managed to get you the aisle seat that you originally asked for. And the next time you’re tempted to condemn people on welfare for milking the system, remember that you’re not doing too badly out of gaming it yourself.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) The follower Gongxi Qi was an expert in ritual. You can read more about him here.

(2) Confucius had a love-hate relationship with his follower Ran Qiu. You can read more about him here.

(3) 釜 (fǔ), 庾 (yǔ) and 秉 (bǐng) were units of measurement used in ancient China. They are listed in ascending order and probably refer to different sizes of pots.

I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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