Leadership lessons from Confucius: coolness under fire

coolness under fire

Confucius said: “Heaven has bestowed me with virtue. What do I have to fear from Huan Tui?” (1) (2)

How to react in a high-pressure situation when even the slightest sign of apprehension or fear from you could send you team’s morale into a tailspin?

You could do a lot worse than take your cue from Confucius’s reaction when he and some of his followers were being pursued by a group of assassins sent to kill him by Huan Tui, the top military official and power behind the throne of the state of Song.

Whether Confucius actually believed that he was protected by heaven or he was just putting on display of bravado is irrelevant. His coolness under fire was enough to calm his followers and give them all time to regroup and escape. If he had shown even the slightest sign of anxiety or hesitation, the outcome could well have been a lot different.


This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) Huan Tui (桓魋) was the most powerful minister in the state Song. He felt so threatened by Confucius that he engineered an attempt to assassinate the sage when he visited the state in 492 BCE during his exile from Lu in order to prevent him from meeting with the titular ruler Duke Jing. According to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (史記/shǐjì), Huan ordered his thugs to cut down a tree that Confucius and his followers were holding a ritual under in order to crush them to death. After the failure of this hairbrained attempt, Confucius and his followers fled the state in disguise. You can read more about Huan Tui here.

(2) This passage is often cited as an example of Confucius’s willingness to accept the will of heaven or fate. On the one hand, he sees himself as having been chosen for the task of restoring the battered empire to its former glories. On the other hand, he understands that he may be stricken down by disaster, disease, or death whenever heaven or fate chooses. He can only focus on what he can control, rather than waste time worrying about what he can’t. See 3.24, 9.5, and 14.36 for other examples of his attitude towards fate.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *