Leadership lessons from Confucius: dealing with life’s ups and down

ups and downs

子張問曰:「令尹子文三仕為令尹,無喜色;三已之,無慍色。舊令尹之政,必以告新令尹。何如?」子曰:「忠矣。」曰:「仁矣乎?」曰:「未知,焉得仁!」「崔子弒齊君,陳文子有馬十乘,棄而違之。至於他邦,則曰,『猶吾大夫崔子也。』違之,之一邦,則又曰:『猶吾大夫崔子也。』違之。何如?」子曰:「清矣。」曰:「仁矣乎?」子曰:「未知,焉得仁?」
Zizhang asked: “Ziwen was appointed chief minister three times, but he never showed the least sign of elation. He was dismissed three times, but he never showed the least sign of disappointment. On each occasion, he briefed his successor on the status of the affairs of his office. What do you think of him?” Confucius said: “He was loyal.” Zizhang asked: “Was he a good person?” Confucius said: “I’m not sure; how can he be said to be a good person?”

“When Cuizi assassinated the ruler of the state of Qi, Chen Wenzi abandoned his large estate of ten chariots and left Qi. Having settled in another state, he said: ‘They are no better than Cuizi,’ and left. Having settled in yet another state, he said once again: ‘They are no better than Cuizi,’ and left once again. What do you think of him?” Confucius said: “He was pure.” Zizhang said: “Was he a good person?” “I’m not sure; how can he be said to be a good person?”

How do you deal with success and failure? Do you break out the champagne when you get a major promotion or win a big and lucrative deal? Do you cry into your empty wine glass when you lose your job or miss out on a huge business opportunity?

Ziwen, a three-time chief minister of the state of Chu (楚) during the seventh century BCE, had a different approach towards dealing with life’s ups and downs by sticking to his path and refusing to allow external circumstances to govern his emotions.

When you see someone important in your organization get away with literal or metaphorical murder, do you stick around in order to keep hold of the comfortable lifestyle you’ve built for yourself, or do you get the hell out of Dodge in order to preserve your integrity and principles?

Chen Wenzi, a high-ranking minister of Qi (齊) during the sixth century BCE, was willing to place his personal probity above prestige and power as he moved from state to state in search of a ruler worthy of his service.

Although Confucius refused to give either Ziwen or Chen Wenzi the ultimate accolade by designating them as a good person, he certainly saw much to admire in them. Perhaps you, too, can a learn a lot from the way they stuck to their guns when encountering life’s ups and downs.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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