Leadership lessons from Confucius: displays of moral superiority

曾子有疾,召門弟子曰:「啟予足!啟予手!詩云:『戰戰兢兢,如臨深淵,如履薄冰。』而今而後,吾知免夫!小子!」
When Zengzi was seriously ill, he called his followers together and said: “Look at my feet! Look at my hands! It’s said in the Book of Songs:
‘We should be vigilant and cautious,
As if we are standing on the edge of an abyss,
As if we are treading on thin ice.’
But now, my little ones, I know that I’m escaping whole now and forever after.” (1)

Better to leave your great virtue unspoken rather than attempt to signal it to others. If it’s half as strong as you think it is, they’ll pick up on it. Ostentatious displays of moral superiority are more likely to repel people than persuade them to follow your example.

Zengzi was one of Confucius’s most illustrious followers and was vigorous proponent of a strong (some might say extreme) brand of filial devotion (孝/xiào). This included the belief that it should be strictly observed even after the death of your parents.

As he lies on his own deathbed, he proudly demands that his followers look at his hands and feet so that they can see he is honoring his parents by leaving the world just as he arrived in it – with his body completely intact (though perhaps with a few wrinkles). To ram home the point, he summarizes his philosophy with a quote from chapter 195 of the Book of Songs: thanks to his vigilance and caution, he has never strayed from the right path despite the myriad temptations he encountered during the tumultuous times he lived in.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

(1) Large portions of the Analects were written by followers of Zengzi, no doubt with the aim of positioning their master as a worthy successor of Confucius. I find him a little too smug and sanctimonious to take his pronouncements too seriously. You can read more about him here.

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

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