Leadership lessons from Confucius: say what you mean

say what you mean

Confucius said: “A cornered chalice without any corners. How can that be called a cornered chalice? How can that be called a cornered chalice?” (1)

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. If you’re running a political polling company dedicate your efforts on finding out what people are really thinking rather than attempting to dictate what they should think by massaging the results to support a pre-determined narrative. Quite apart from the moral issues at stake, why sacrifice your long-term credibility for short-term fame?


This article features a translation of Chapter 25 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) A 觚 (gū) was originally a four-cornered chalice used to make offerings of wine in ancient Shang dynasty ritual ceremonies. Confucius is protesting the use of rounded chalices for this purpose, regarding it as a major violation of the rituals and hence tantamount to sacrilege. Although his attitude may seem more than a little pedantic, he is making a very important point about the need for precision in the words people use to describe or name something. This is a subject that he expounds on in much greater depth in Chapter 3 of Book 13 of the Analects, when he tells his follower Zilu why his first priority would be the “rectification of the names” if he were ever to gain power:

“If the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things. When language does not accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully. When nothing can be carried out successfully, the rites and music will not flourish. When the rites and music don’t flourish, punishments and penalties miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, the people do not know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever they want to talk about and must also make sure they do exactly as they say.”

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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