Leadership lessons from Confucius: a bright shiny object

bright shiny object

魯人為長府。閔子騫曰:「仍舊貫,如之何?何必改作!」子曰:「夫人不言,言必有中。」
The leadership of Lu was planning to demolish the Long Treasury and rebuild it. Min Ziqian said: “Why not just repair the old structure? Why build a new one?” Confucius said: “This man rarely speaks, but when he does he hits the mark.” (1)

It’s always much more exciting to work on a new project than on maintaining or upgrading an existing one – not to mention more beneficial to your career because of the increased exposure it will give you. After all, who has time to pay attention to the poor suckers beavering away in the background when there’s a brand-new bright shiny object to gawp at?

Except, of course, it’s generally much more cost-effective to keep existing facilities and systems optimized than going to the time and expense of building completely new ones. The next time a proposal for an “groundbreaking” new project comes across your desk, don’t let personal vanity override common sense.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 14 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) There is extensive debate over who the term 魯人/Lǔrén at the beginning of this passage refers to. It literally means “people of Lu”, but this doesn’t make any sense in this context given that they wouldn’t have had the right or power to make such a decision. Thus, I have gone with the term “the leadership”.

According to some commentators, Duke Zhao, the ruler of Lu at the time, was planning to make the Long Treasury his headquarters for launching an attack against the Ji Family that had long been the true power behind the throne and made the duke a mere puppet. Well aware of the trouble that the duke would have in facing this powerful family down, Min Ziqian is therefore warning him that rebuilding the structure would unnecessarily antagonize them – not to mentioning giving them an unmistakable signal of his intentions.

Another possible interpretation is that the term means “certain people of Lu” and refers to members of the Ji Family, who may have been hatching plans to further undermine the largely symbolic authority of Duke Zhao by knocking down his Long Treasury building and replacing it with a new one of their own design. If this is the case, the normally taciturn Min Ziqian is using his knowledge of their cunning plan to indirectly express his support for the legitimate – if nominal – ruler of the state in his struggle against his internal enemies.

Ultimately tensions came to a head when a dispute over cockfight gambling between the Ji Family and another of the so-called Three Families forced the duke to take military action against the Ji, only for the families to unite against him force him to go into exile in the state of Qi.

Confucius, who was also on the side of the duke, had to join him there as well. This wasn’t the last time that Confucius found himself on the losing side of an internal political battle in his home state – nor the last time that he was forced to flee from it. 

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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