Leadership lessons from Confucius: your greatest strength

your greatest strength

Virtue: Yan Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Geng, Ran Yong. Eloquence: Zai Yu, Zigong. Administration: Ran Qiu, Zilu. Letters: Ziyou, Zixia. (1)

What is your greatest strength? What do you wish to be known for? Is it your sense of morality or eloquence? Or perhaps your leadership abilities or literary talents. Whatever it is, keep on working to improve it. No matter how good you are at it already, there’s always room for improvement.

What are the greatest strengths of your family members, friends, and colleagues? How can you help them to identify what they’re good at and inspire them to do even better? It’s much more rewarding to be part of a culture in which everyone works together to improve than taking this road on your own.


This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) It isn’t known whether Confucius or the early compilers of the Analects made this assessment of ten of his most prominent followers. Here is a pen portrait of each of them; click on the links for more detailed profiles.

It’s no surprise that Yan Hui, listed here as Yan Yuan, is first on the list. He was Confucius’s favorite follower and protégé because of his eagerness to learn, willingness to correct his mistakes, and the love and respect he showed for the sage and his teachings. If he hadn’t died young at the age of twenty-nine, Confucius would no doubt have appointed him as his successor.

Min Ziqian is best known for the devotion he showed towards his wicked stepmother despite her abominable treatment of him as a child. He went on to become a respected official and philosopher.

Ran Geng, listed here as Ran Boniu, came from the same clan as two other followers of the sage, Ran Yong (冉雍) and Ran Qiu (冉求). Some sources claim he was their elder brothers; others claim he was Ran Yong’s father. Confucius greatly admired him for his virtue and administrative talents and was deeply saddened when he died of leprosy.

Ran Yong, listed here as Zhonggong, was a devoted follower of Confucius and a highly talented official who resigned from a senior post in the government of Lu out of disillusionment with the corruption of the Ji Family.

Zai Yu, listed here as Zai Wo, had a silken tongue but often attracted Confucius’s ire for his laziness and arrogance. Most famously, Confucius lamented in exasperation at his poor attitude: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?”

Zigong was one the most devoted followers of Confucius and a highly successful businessman and statesman in his own right. Following the death of Confucius, Zigong lived for six years near the sage’s tomb and spent his final years promoting the sage’s teachings.

Ran Qiu, listed here as Ran You, was a financial genius who looked after Confucius’s finances for a while and played an instrumental role in reviving the economy of Lu after being appointed the counselor of Ji Kangzi (季康子), the true power behind the state’s throne. Confucius had a love-hate relationship with him, on one occasion urging his other followers to “beat the drum, my little ones, and attack him.”

Zilu, listed here as Jilu, was the faithful friend and follower of Confucius. Although the sage regularly chided him for his impetuousness and outspokenness, he admired him for his courage and straightforwardness. Zilu was also a highly respected official, who held senior positions in the states of Lu and Wei.

Ziyou became a follower of Confucius when the sage was already an old man. Confucius admired him for his literary and administrative talents. After the death of Confucius, Ziyou became a teacher and philosopher himself – but after his works were savaged by the philosopher Xunzi (荀子), he was never able to achieve the same levels of prominence as other followers of Confucius.

Zixia was noted for his great scholarship and extensive knowledge of the classics, and promoted the ideas and teachings of Confucius during his long life – reportedly serving at the court of Prince Wan of Wei at the age of ninety-nine. Although Confucius admired him, he also cautioned him against becoming a pedant. Other critics have accused him of being too autocratic.

I took this image 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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