Leadership lessons from Confucius: putting someone under a cloud

under a cloud

Confucius said: “What is Zilu doing playing his zither inside my gate?” His other followers ceased to treat Zilu with respect. Confucius said: “Zilu may not have entered the inner chamber yet, but he has at least ascended to the hall.” (1) (2)

If you have reason to criticize a member of your team, make sure you do so in private. This is not only respectful to the person concerned, but it also prevents gossip and rumors spreading through the office like wildfire. Loose lips can not only sink ships but also people’s reputations and even careers.

It’s very difficult to recover once you’ve been put under a cloud.


This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Confucius was reportedly a very good zither player. Although he voiced his irritation at Zilu for the poor quality of his playing, he didn’t expect his other followers to overreact to his intemperate comment by showing their disrespect for their colleague. He therefore tried to mollify their reaction by telling them that they shouldn’t behave like that towards someone who has taken the trouble to learn how to make music even if his aesthetic sense was still lacking.

(2) There were three stages of learning in ancient China. Indeed, this terminology is still used today:
Beginner: 入門/rùmén literally means “enter the door”.
Intermediate: 升堂/shēngtáng literally means “ascend to the hall”.
Professional: 入於室/ rù yú shì literally means “enter the inner chamber”.

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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