Leadership lessons from Confucius: before opening your mouth

before opening your mouth

Nan Rong constantly repeated a refrain from the poem White Jade Scepter. Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter in marriage. (1)

Pause and take a deep breath before opening your mouth or tapping the publish or send key on your smartphone screen. Once you’ve said or written something you may come to regret, it’s impossible to take it back. No matter how much you apologize later on, the memory of it will always linger somewhere deep in the recipient’s mind together with the feelings of hurt and anger that it may have caused.

Being cautious about when and how you express yourself is of course becoming even more important in an age when someone may take offense at what you may consider to be the most innocuous comment. That doesn’t mean buttoning up your lips all the time, but making sure that you only speak up when you have something important or useful to add to the conversation.

If all of us learned to listen more and talk less, life would be a lot more enjoyable for everyone.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Nan Rong was first mentioned in Chapter 2 of Book 5 of the Analects in which Confucius gave him the hand of his niece due to his cautious nature: “In a well-governed state, he will not be overlooked for an official position. In a badly-governed state, he will avoid punishment and disgrace.”

The refrain that Nan Rong is repeating in this passage can be found in Ode 256 of the Book of Songs. It provides further evidence of his cautious nature:

A flaw in a white jade scepter can be polished away
But a flaw in words is irreparable

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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