Leadership lessons from Confucius: letting your emotions show

letting your emotions show

顏淵死,子曰:「噫!天喪予!天喪予!」
When Yan Hui died, Confucius cried: “Alas! Heaven’s the ruin of me! Heaven’s the ruin of me!” (1)

How far should you go in masking your true emotions when disaster hits? Should you strive to remain calm and in control or is it OK to show your shock and grief with those around you?

While it’s becoming more socially acceptable for top government and business leaders to show their “human side” by expressing their emotions, it’s also true that during times of crisis people most expect them to remain calm and collected in order to demonstrate that they can get the situation under control as quickly as possible.

It’s impossible to predict how you’ll react when you are faced with dreadful news. But although there’s no shame in letting your emotions show, after the initial shock has worn off better to grieve in private away from the public glare.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Confucius had an uncharacteristically emotional reaction upon hearing of the death of his favorite follower Yan Hui in 481 BCE when he was still in his early thirties. Contrast his very real personal grief in this passage with his insistence on adhering to the rules of ritual propriety in the arrangements for Yan Hui’s funeral in the previous one. You can read more about Yan Hui 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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