Leadership lessons from Confucius: words of praise

words of praise

子曰:「法語之言,能無從乎?改之為貴!巽與之言,能無說乎?繹之為貴!說而不繹,從而不改,吾末如之何也已矣!」 (1) (2)
Confucius said: “How can we turn a deaf ear to pertinent words of advice? But they only have any value if we act on them. How can we fail to be delighted by words of praise? But they only have any value if we understand their true purpose. People who are delighted by praise but don’t understand the reason for it and people who accept words of advice without acting on them – I have absolutely no idea what to do with them!”

When someone asks you for advice, give it freely and frankly. If they decide not to follow your counsel, don’t take it personally. But if they come to ask you advice again, don’t waste your time sharing your thoughts. They’re clearly not that interested in what you have to say.

When someone gives you words of praise, say a polite thank you but think carefully about what they’ve said. Have they pointed to a particular reason for their praise or were they just saying something nice about you in order to be polite or to suck up to you? Even if the praise is genuine, don’t let it go to your head. You still have plenty of room for future improvement.


This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) Advice is perhaps not quite a muscular enough word to convey the full meaning of the term 法語 (fǎyǔ), but I can’t come up with anything more appropriate. It literally means something like “language that accords with ritual”; alternatives translations would include “admonishment”, “admonition”, “correction”, and even “exemplary sayings”.

(2) Not for the first time – or the last for that matter – Confucius is voicing his frustration at people who fail to back up their fine words with meaningful action. No matter how strongly he advocates his path of self-cultivation, only a handful of his contemporaries show a genuine commitment to following it. Even two of his most promising followers, Zai Yu and Ran Qiu, demonstrated a distinct lack of interest! See 5.10 and 6.12.

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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