Leadership Lessons from Confucius: conflicts of interest

conflicts of interest

When Ran Qiu returned from court, Confucius said: “What kept you so long?” Ran Qiu replied: “Government affairs.” Confucius said: “Surely you mean private affairs. If it had been government affairs I would have heard about them, even though I’m not in office.”

As technology blurs the boundaries between functions, disciplines, and businesses, how are you going to manage the conflicts of interest that will inevitably arise from this? What if a supplier decides to move into a market that you’re already active in based in part on the insights it’s gleaned from working with you? Or if an online distributor leverages the sales data it’s capturing to develop a product that competes directly with yours under its own brand? This is a murky new world that technology is moving us into with levels of ethical complexity that have never been seen before. Make sure you’re ready for it.


This article features a translation of Chapter 14 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Confucius had a contentious relationship with his follower Ran Qiu, who stayed behind in Lu after the sage went into exile in 497 BCE and became a trusted confidante and retainer of Ji Kangzi, the prime minister and head of the powerful Ji Family. In this capacity, Ran Qiu helped revive the local economy and by a no-doubt fortunate coincidence also managed to make huge amounts of money for his boss and himself in the process. Even though Ran Qiu managed to persuade Ji Kangzi to invite Confucius to return home in 484 BCE, the relationship between the two men remained prickly. Hence the pointed questioning from Confucius whether Ran Qiu was discussing government or private affairs at court. The true answer of course was that, like many a politician before and after him, he was discussing both.

(2) From the perspective of ritual, it’s questionable that Confucius had the right to question Ran Qiu about what he discussed at court. Since he wasn’t a minister or official himself, Confucius had no business involving himself in government affairs.

This image is of Cuifeng Lake in Taipingshan. You can read more about it here.

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