Leadership lessons from Confucius: a trick question

trick question

宰我問曰:「仁者,雖告之曰,『井有仁焉。』其從之也?」子曰:「何為其然也?君子可逝也,不可陷也;可欺也,不可罔也。」
Zai Yu asked: “If a good person was told that someone lies at the bottom of a well, should they jump in after them?” Confucius said: “Why should they? A leader be enticed down the wrong path but not into a trap; they can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

There’s no need to put someone on the spot with a trick question. The aim of any conversation or meeting you hold should be to generate a positive discussion – not to show how clever you are. The more you put other people down, the more you’ll stifle the sharing of different perspectives and ideas.

Even if you win a few exchanges to begin with, you’ll be the biggest loser in the end because people will just shut down and keep their thoughts to themselves.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 26 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) Confucius had a tempestuous relationship with his follower Zai Yu. On one occasion he famously sighed in exasperation when he found him asleep when he should have been studying: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?” You can read more about Zai Yu here.

(2) It is probable that the character 仁 (rén/goodness] at the end of the first sentence (『井有仁焉。』) of this passage was transcribed incorrectly and should be 人 (rén/man or person). This is the interpretation I have gone with. If you decide that goodness is the correct interpretation, the translation would read like this:

Zai Yu asked: “If a good person was told that goodness lies at the bottom of a well, should they jump in after it?” Confucius said: “Why should they? A leader can be enticed down the wrong path, but not into a trap; they can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

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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