Leadership lessons from Confucius: an uncomfortable question

uncomfortable question

Confucius said: “Even if someone has all the outstanding talents of the Duke of Zhou, if they’re arrogant and mean all their other qualities aren’t worth looking at.”

Do you have the right character to make the most of your talent? This is an uncomfortable question to ask yourself, but also an extremely important one. After all, it’s impossible to achieve long-term success based on your abilities alone. You need to be able to complement them with diligence, integrity, modesty, generosity, and a host of other traits that will enable you to become a well-rounded person – or, as Confucius termed it, a leader (君子/jūnzǐ).

Central to his teachings was the idea that all of us have the potential to become a leader if we focus on cultivating our character as well as our talent. This is why he concentrated so much of his time and energy on promoting core ethical principles to his followers, students, and the rulers and nobility of the numerous states he visited during his lifetime.

As Confucius learned from his own lack of success in persuading his contemporaries to up their ethical game, it’s one thing to know what areas you need to improve on but quite another to go through the struggle of actually making the required changes to improve your attitudes and behavior. Although other people can help point the way for you, it’s down to you to make it happen.


This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

(1) The Duke of Zhou (周公) is a legendary figure in Chinese history and Confucius’s hero for the pivotal role he played in unifying the country under the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) and putting the foundations in place for its social, economic, and cultural development while acting as regent until his nephew assumed the throne as King Cheng (周成王). You can read more about the Duke of Zhou here.

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

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