Leadership lessons from Confucius: a tawdry tale

tawdry tale

冉有曰:「夫子為衛君乎?」子貢曰:「諾,吾將問之。」入曰:「伯夷、叔齊何人也?」曰:「古之賢人也。」曰:「怨乎?」曰:「求仁而得仁,又何怨?」出曰:「夫子不為也。」
Ran Qiu said: “Does the Master support the Duke of Wei?” Zigong said: “Well, I’m going to ask him.” Zigong went in and asked Confucius: “What sort of people were Boyi and Shuqi?” “They were virtuous men of old.” “Did they complain?” “They sought goodness and attained goodness. Why should they have complained?” Zigong left and said to Ran Qiu: “The Master does not support the Duke of Wei.”

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that other people will support you because you have a good relationship with them. Learn to accept that their opinions will differ from yours no matter how close you happen to be with them. In fact, the stronger the bond you have with someone, the greater the chance that they will free to voice their disagreement with you.

The question of whether Confucius should support Duke Chu of Wei (衛出公) was a highly complex one as a result of the tawdry circumstances that led to his ascension to power.

Called Zhe (輒), the duke  was the son of Kuaikui (蒯瞶), the former heir-apparent to the throne, who had been forced to flee the state of Wei in disgrace after plotting to kill Nanzi (南子), the consort of his father, Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公). When Duke Ling died in in 493 BCE, Zhe succeeded him as the Duke of Wei. When Kuaikui requested his son to allow him to return to Wei to pay his respects to his deceased father, Zhe refused out of fear that Kuaikui would seize the throne for himself.

Zigong and some other followers appear to have assumed that Confucius would support the duke’s refusal to permit his father’s proposed visit because Kuaikuai’s criminal past made him a persona non grata. However, by citing the story of Boyi and Shuqi, Confucius was indirectly telling Zigong that he valued filial devotion above everything else. Thus, even though Kuaikuai presented an obvious threat to his son if he returned to Wei, Confucius believed that the duke had the moral obligation to agree to his request because of his filial responsibilities towards his father!

Confucius managed to avoid getting further caught up in this father-son feud. However, tragedy struck a decade later in around 481 BCE when his faithful follower and friend Zilu was killed in the fighting that ensued when Kuaikui returned to Wei in disguise and seized the throne from his son.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 14 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) You can read more about Duke Chu of Wei here.

(2) You can read more about the strange tale of Boyi and Shuqi here.

(3) You can learn more about the background to this twisted affair in this profile of Nanzi here.

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

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