Leadership lessons from Confucius: both miss the mark

miss the mark

子貢問:「師與商也孰賢?」子曰:「師也過,商也不及。」曰:「然則師愈與?」子曰:「過猶不及。」
Zigong asked: “Who is better: Zizhang or Zixia?” Confucius said: “Zizhang overshoots the mark and Zixia falls short of the mark.” Zigong said: “Then Zizhang must be better?” Confucius said: “Both miss the mark.”

When does your greatest strength become your greatest weakness? This is a question you should think deeply about when analyzing your actions. A lot may depend on the circumstances you’re in.

While it’s great to be aggressive when you’re hunting for new customers, you risk failing to close the deal if you push them too hard to sign on the bottom line. In the same vein, while it’s definitely advisable to be cautious when making a sales forecast in order to minimize the risk of building up too much inventory, you still need to make sure that you have enough stock on hand in order to avoid missing out on orders and losing the loyalty and goodwill of your customers.

There’s no magic secret to achieving the right balance. It requires a consistent process of honest and rigorous analysis of your performance in order to identify the areas you need to improve in and issues you need to address. Otherwise, like Zizhang and Zixia, you will continue to miss the mark.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Zizhang was known for his quick thinking and intelligence, but his arrogance and relentless self-promotion put a lot of people off him. Zixia was known for his great learning and virtue, but was seen as being overly cautious and pedantic.

(2) Confucius is criticizing both Zizhang and Zixia for their inability to achieve the right balance. In Chapter 29 of Book 6 he calls this balance the “Golden Mean” (中庸/zhōngyōng). You can read more about that 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.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *