Leadership lessons from Confucius: too good to be true

too good to be true

子曰:「大哉堯之為君也,巍巍乎,唯天為大,唯堯則之,蕩蕩乎,民無能名焉。巍巍乎,其有成功也,煥乎,其有文章。」
Confucius said: “What a great ruler Yao was! Absolutely majestic! Only heaven is great, and only Yao was able to emulate it. His virtue was so great that the people could find no words to describe it. How stunning were his achievements, and how brilliant the culture was that he created!” (1)

If someone sounds too good to be true, then they probably are. No matter how great the praises heaped on them, there’s always bound be some hidden weakness or dark secret beneath the beautifully constructed façade.

In the case of the sage king Yao (堯) it was his playboy son Danzhu (丹朱), who was said to have been so dissolute and vicious that Yao was forced to banish him from his kingdom. According to the legend, this left Yao free to select Shun as his successor after giving him the hand of his two daughters in marriage.

Confucius of course fails to mention this issue in his panegyric about Yao, preferring to highlight his great virtue and great cultural achievements, which reportedly included the establishment of ritual to bind the diverse cultures of the nascent state more closely together and the invention of the lunar calendar.

Why let a spot of family trouble tarnish these towering accomplishments, after all?

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.

(1) You can read more about the sage king Yao here.

(2) Another version of the tale suggests that Shun may have invited Danzhu to return from exile and assume the throne after the death of his father – a request that Danzhu turned down (perhaps because he feared a trap). According to yet another account, Shun may have appointed Danzhu as the titular king after deposing and murdering Yao before subsequently making himself the ruler.

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

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