Leadership lessons from Confucius: a touch of ironic humor

a touch of ironic humor

While Confucius was held captive in Kuang, Yan Hui had fallen behind. When they were finally reunited, Confucius said: “I thought you were dead.” Yan Hui said: “While you’re alive, how would I dare to die?” (1) (2)

There’s nothing like a touch of ironic humor to take the tension out of an awkward situation. A detailed analysis of what went wrong and the reasons for it can wait until later.

It helps of course if you have a strong emotional bond with everyone involved. Close-knit teams that have overcome great challenges in the past are much better equipped to deal with even greater ones in the future.


This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) This passage provides a clear illustration of the closeness of the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui. How better to show relief at being reunited than by sharing a joke?

(2) This incident is said to have occurred in in 496 BCE when Confucius had to make a  hasty departure from the state of Wei after he became the victim of a whispering campaign launched against him by ministers afraid that he would take their jobs.  When he arrived at the rough border town of Kuang, he was mistaken by the locals for an outlaw called Yang Huo (楊貨) and held captive for several days. You can read more about this case of mistaken identity 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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