Leadership lessons from Confucius: the thin end of the wedge

thin end of the edge

Confucius said: “Zang Wenzhong kept a giant tortoise in a pavilion featuring pillars patterned with mountains and posts above the rafters decorated with duckweed motifs. What does this say of his wisdom?” (1) (2)

Organizations that reach a certain age have rules and conventions that have accumulated like dust even though they are well past their sell-by dates. Do you simply ignore them, or do you make a concerted effort to update or remove them?

The former approach is certainly the least hassle-free option, unless of course you enjoy grappling with Finance over absurd travel expense claim requirements or with HR about arcane performance evaluation criteria. But the more you flout the rules, no matter how ridiculous you think they are, the more other people will copy you and over time the discipline and cohesion of the organization will suffer. After all, if you can leave the office early because you are supposedly going to work at home, why can’t everyone else?

Confucius is criticizing Zang Wenzhong for his domestic tortoise arrangements precisely because of this reason. Although by all accounts Zang was an outstanding minister, for Confucius at least his blatant disregard of tortoise ownership conventions represented the thin end of the wedge. If high-level officials were seen to flout long-established customs and standards with impunity, the common people would lose their respect for them and feel free to follow their example.

Even though it’s tedious and contentious work, it does make a lot of sense to regularly scrub the rulebook clean. The more the existing rules and regulations are seen to be ignored, the quicker the rot sets in.


This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) Zang Wenzhong (藏文仲) was a highly-respected minister of the state of Lu who lived during the 7th Century BCE. You can read more about him here.

(2) Tortoises were reared for use in divination ceremonies in ancient China. Their shells were smashed and burned to produce the auguries. There were strict conventions regarding the size of the tortoises that could be kept by people of different ranks and the design and decoration of their accommodations. As a minister, Zang would have been limited to having tortoises eight inches in length and housing them in a fairly limited above – presumably without duckweed motifs. By comparison kings and dukes would have been able to own animals twelve and ten inches in length.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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