Leadership lessons from Confucius: the road to hell

road to hell

Confucius was seriously ill. Zilu had his followers act as if they were retainers of a lord. When his illness went into remission, Confucius said: “Zilu, this deception has lasted long enough. Who do I deceive with these bogus retainers? Do I deceive heaven? Rather than die among retainers, I would prefer to die in the arms of my followers. I may not receive a grand funeral, but I’ll hardly die by the roadside.”

Respect other people’s wishes. Don’t try to second guess them. Even if you think your idea is better, their priorities may very well be different than yours. It’s no accident that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to heaven, on the other hand, is paved with strict adherence to ritual propriety and a final embrace of close friends rather than fake grandeur and insufferable pomposity.


This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) For all his enthusiasm and loyalty, Zilu shows a remarkable disregard or ignorance of the teachings of his master when Confucius appears to be on his deathbed. While he wants to give his master face by having his followers honor him as if he is a feudal lord, Confucius has no choice but to scold his faithful friend and follower for this flagrant violation of ritual. You can read more about Zilu here.

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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