Leadership lessons from Confucius: we all make mistakes

we all make mistakes

子曰:「主忠信,毋友不如己者,過則勿憚改。」
Confucius said: “Hold loyalty and trustworthiness as your highest principles; don’t make friends with people who are not your equal. When you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to correct yourself.” (1) (2)

We all make mistakes. The key is having the courage and intellectual honesty to recognize them and move swiftly to correct them. Once the problem is sorted out, it also means putting in the hard work of carefully analyzing what went wrong and the reasons for it so that you can make sure it’s never repeated.

It helps of course to have people around you who are unafraid of offering you frank and honest feedback on the mistake and how it could have been avoided. That requires building up a culture based on loyalty, trust, and mutual respect for each other’s experience and expertise. Why should people risk their necks delivering candid criticism if they know it could lead to political complications for them and potentially harm their career?

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 25 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) This is a repetition of the second half of Chapter 8 of Book 1. See my commentary here.

(2) Some scholars argue that the character 忠 (zhōng) means “to do your utmost”. This interpretation is possible given the context.

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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