Leadership lessons from Confucius: when the chips are down

when the chips are down

子曰:「孟之反不伐,奔而殿,將入門,策其馬,曰:「『非敢後也,馬不進也。』」
Confucius said: “Meng Zhifan isn’t given to boasting. When he and his soldiers were in retreat, he stayed with the rearguard. It was only when they reached the city gate that he spurred his horse and said: ‘It wasn’t courage that kept me at the rear. My horse wouldn’t run.’” (1)

If you’re willing to put yourself in the firing line, your people will be more than happy to fight the good fight alongside you. They’ll be even more willing to support you if you refuse to play the hero and downplay any contribution you make with a self-deprecating joke or two.

If you cower in the background pretending to be directing operations in the heat of the battle, they’ll lose their confidence and trust in you. They need to know that they can count on you when the chips are down.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) Meng Zhifan was a minister of the state of Lu. In about 485 BCE, he led an army that was soundly defeated by a force from the state of Qi in a battle that took place near Qufu. However, he managed to save part of it by leading an effective rearguard action that allowed his surviving soldiers to escape. You can read more about Meng Zhifan here.

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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