Leadership Lessons from Confucius: passing clouds

passing clouds

Confucius said: “Even if you have only coarse grain to eat, water to drink, and your bent elbow to use as a pillow, you can still find joy in these things. But wealth and honors obtained by improper means are like passing clouds to me.” (1) (2) 

What compromises are you prepared to make in order to achieve fame and fortune? It’s all very well to wax lyrical about the simple pleasures of life like Confucius does in this passage, but they provide little or no joy at all when you are fighting to put food on the table to feed your family or keep your startup alive when it’s on the verge of collapsing.

For all his teaching about ethics and propriety, Confucius got himself involved in more than a few questionable incidents during his lifetime in his pursuit of political power in his home state of Lu and his subsequent search for a high-level official position in the courts of nearby states after his hasty departure into exile. The infamous meeting he had with Nanzi, the scandal-ridden consort of Duke Ling of Wei, that was featured Chapter 26 of Book 6 was small beer compared to some of the other dubious events he got caught up in.

Despite his lyrical disdain for the “passing clouds” of “wealth and honors”, Confucius wasn’t averse to being welcomed like a rock star by the rulers of the states that he visited either. No doubt he saw such treatment as his due given his great learning and status, but some critics might point out that the privileges he enjoyed show that he was just as attracted to the allure of fame and fortune as the rest of us.


This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) This passage has a similar theme to 7.11. Your joy should come from following the way itself – not because it may bring you wealth and fame.

(2) Some commentators argue that Confucius is expanding on his comments in 7.14 by implying that he wouldn’t support Duke Chu of Wei even if he was paid a lot of money to do so.

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

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