Leadership lessons from Confucius: a bitter pill to swallow

bitter pill to swallow

Confucius said of Yan Hui: “What a tragedy! I watched him make progress; I never saw him stop improving.” (1) (2)

How to react when someone you’ve mentored closely decides to move on? This can be a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve invested a lot of time and resources in helping someone develop their skills only to see them bestow the benefits of their knowledge and experience on another organization.

The only answer is to shake their hands, thank them for their contribution, and wish them the best of luck in their new position. The chances are that you’ll meet them again on some occasion and perhaps even do business with them. Remember, too, the people who recognized your potential when you were just starting out on your career and were willing take a chance on you. Helping the next generation grow is your way of paying them back for the confidence that they showed in you.


This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) Yan Hui was the star pupil and protégé of Confucius. He died an untimely death at the age of thirty-two. You can read more about Yan Hui here.

(2) The character 止 (zhǐ) literally means “to stop”. In this context it could mean either “stop to rest” or “stop improving”. I have opted for the latter interpretation, but either is possible.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.

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