Leadership lessons from Confucius: a special case?

special case

顏淵死,顏路請子之車以為之 。子曰:「才不才,亦各言其子也。鯉也死,有棺而無 ;吾不徒行,以為之 ,以吾從大夫之後,不可徒行也。」
When Yan Hui died, his father Yan Lu asked Confucius if he could sell his carriage so that he could pay for an outer coffin for his son. Confucius said: “Talented or not, a son is a son. When my son Li died, he was buried in an inner coffin but there was no outer coffin. I wouldn’t go on foot in order to give him one because it wasn’t proper for me as a former minister to go on foot.” (1) (2) (3)

If you fail to follow the rules and conventions of your organization, how can you expect others to observe them? If you allow yourself some wriggling room by treating a sensitive or contentious case as an exception, why can’t everyone else do the same?

Consistency in setting and applying expectations is essential for maintaining cohesion across any organization. Staff morale and effectiveness soon break down once you start treating everything as a special case.


This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) According to ancient Chinese funeral customs, high officials were buried in both an inner and outer coffin as a sign of respect for their high status. Since Yan Hui hadn’t achieved this status, Confucius had no choice but to refuse the request of Yan Lu even if he he had personally wanted to agree to it. In addition, as a former minister himself Confucius was obliged to join the funeral procession in a carriage rather than go on foot. Despite his deep affection for Yan Hui, there was no way he could have possibly allowed himself to be seen breaking the rules and conventions of ritual that he so vociferously espoused.

(2) Yan Hui’s father Yan Lu was one of the earliest followers of Confucius. You can read more about him here.

(3) You can read more about Confucius’s son Boyu here.

I took this image of an ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessel at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

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