Leadership Lessons from Confucius: all men are brothers

all men are brothers

Sima Niu was full of sorrow: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.” Zixia said: “I have heard this: life and death are ordained by fate; wealth and honors are assigned by heaven. A leader always shows respect and courtesy to others. Within the four seas all men are brothers. How could a leader complain that he has no brothers?”

No relationship is set in stone. Even the people you think you’re closest to move on and do other stuff. No need to become a drama queen if they do something you don’t approve of or leave for pastures new. Wish them all the best and get on with your own life.

Nobody is irreplaceable. If you treat people well, you will be sure to meet others who share your interests and values.


This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.

(1) Sima Niu is emoting against Huan Tui and probably two of his other brothers, Zixin and Ziche, for launching a failed coup against Duke Jing of Song. He has come to hate them so much for their treachery and besmirching the family name, that he no longer considers them to be worthy of being his brothers. So much for blood being thicker than water.

(2) The follower Zixia attempts to relieve Sima Niu’s gloom by turning his argument on its head with his claim that “all men are brothers” because they can build fraternal relationships around shared ethical values rather than blood ties. There are no records of the effect Zixia’s claim had on Sima Niu, but the phrase “all men are brothers” became so famous that it has often been wrongly attributed to Confucius and was adopted as the title of a popular Chinese television series base on the Water Margin. You can read more about Zixia here.

(3) This is the third and final appearance of Sima Niu in the Analects. Even though he is categorized as a follower of Confucius, he doesn’t appear to have been particularly close to the sage or to have contributed to the development and promotion of his teachings. Perhaps hanger-on is a better description.

I took this image at a hillside temple in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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