Leadership lessons from Confucius: tailoring your management style

tailoring your management style

子路問:「聞斯行諸?」子曰:「有父兄在,如之何其聞斯行之!」冉有問:「聞斯行諸?」子曰:「聞斯行之!」公西華曰:「由也問『聞斯行諸?』,子曰:『有父兄在』;求也問,『聞斯行諸?』子曰:『聞斯行之』。赤也惑,敢問?」子曰:「求也退,故進之;由也兼人,故退之。」
Zilu asked: “When I learn something new, should I put it into practice immediately?” Confucius said: “Your father and your elder brother are still alive. How could you put it into practice immediately?” Ran Qiu said: “When I learn something new, should I put it into practice immediately?” Confucius said: “Put it into practice immediately.” Gongxi Chi said: “When Zilu asked whether or not he should put into practice something new that he’s learned, you told him that his father and elder brother are still alive. But when Ran Qiu asked the very same question, you told him to put it into practice immediately. I’m confused. May I ask for an explanation?” Confucius said: “Ran Qiu holds himself back, so I push him forward; Zilu has enough energy for two, so I hold him back.” (1)

There’s no magic algorithm for managing people. What works for one won’t work on another. There’s no substitute for spending time to really get to know each person you work with and tailoring your management style in line with their personality.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) This is an excellent example of Confucius’s situational leadership skills. He tailors his responses to fit the impetuous nature of Zilu and the more cautious personality of Ran Qiu.

I took this image of these two ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessels 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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