Leadership Lessons from Confucius: know your role

know your role

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” The duke said: “Excellent! If lords are not lords, ministers are not ministers, fathers are not fathers, and sons are not sons, would I be able to eat even if I had food?”

It’s not enough simply to know your role. You also have to live up to the professional and ethical responsibilities that it encompasses. As a CEO, for example, your role involves much more than hitting the right financial numbers; building up a strong corporate culture that promotes honesty and openness is equally, if not more, important. That means, of course, becoming a powerful role model who sets the right example for everyone to follow through your words and actions. While you may not realize it at first, failure to do that will send your organization sliding down a slippery slope that will be difficult to escape from.


This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.

(1) In 517 BCE Confucius left his home state of Lu at the age of thirty-five after its ruler Duke Zhao was ousted from the throne and joined him in the state of Qi. Qi was in a similar state of chaos as Lu, with its ailing ruler Duke Jing unable to determine his successor because he had lost his power to his chief minister Chen Qi. Although the duke appears to enthusiastically accept Confucius’s advice that everyone in society should carry out their duties correctly and treat each other in accordance with their respective status, he didn’t have either the power or the will to act on it and Chen Qi and his family ultimately took control of the state.

(2) Confucius explores this issue of the need for people to match their behavior with the responsibilities of their role in society more deeply in 13.3 when he tells Zilu that his first priority in government would be to “rectify the names” (必也正名乎) because “when the names are not correct, the language is not in accordance with the truth of things” (名不正,則言不順).

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

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