Leadership lessons from Confucius: an unwinnable battle

unwinnable battle

子曰:「篤信好學,守死善道。危邦不人,亂邦不居,天下有道則見,無道則隱。邦有道,貧且賤焉,恥也,邦無道,富且貴焉,恥也。」
Confucius said: “Commit yourself sincerely to the love of learning. Defend the great way with your life. Do not enter an unstable state or live in a country that is in chaos. Take office when the way prevails in the world; withdraw from office when it disappears. In a state that has adopted the way, be ashamed if you remain poor and obscure; in a state that has lost the way, be ashamed if you become rich and achieve high rank.”

There’s no point in working with a leader without a clear ethical sense. No matter how honorably you act, you will inevitably get dragged into the morass and emerge with a sullied reputation or perhaps even worse.

Better to go and work for someone else with a much stronger moral compass even if it means waiting a while for the right opportunity to appear. Life’s too short to waste your time and talent fighting an unwinnable battle.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

(1) It was very common during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods for Chinese intellectuals to move from state to state in search of an official post with a respectable ruler. Indeed, there was strong competition among the most reputable rulers to hire the best talent for their administrations. One of the key points Confucius makes in this passage is that there is no excuse for failure if a good leader is in charge. If you are working for a bad one, however, the likelihood is that the only way you will be successful is by copying their unethical behavior.

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

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