Leadership Lessons from Confucius: one single saying

one single saying

Duke Ding asked: “Is there one single saying that can ensure the prosperity of a state?” Confucius replied: “No single saying could have such an effect. There is a saying, however: ‘It’s difficult to be a ruler; it isn’t easy to be a minister.’ A saying that could make the ruler understand the difficulty of his task would come close to ensuring the prosperity of the state.” “Is there one single saying that can ruin a state?” Confucius replied: “No single saying could have such an effect. There is a saying, however: ‘There’s nothing I love more about being a ruler than never having to be contradicted.’ If you’re right and nobody contradicts you, that’s great; but if you’re wrong and nobody contradicts you, wouldn’t this come close to being a case of ‘one single saying that can ruin a state?’”
定公問:「一言而可以興邦,有諸?」孔子對曰:「言不可以若是其幾也!人之言曰:『為君難,為臣不易。』如知為君之難也,不幾乎一言而興邦乎?」曰:「一言而喪邦,有諸?」孔子對曰:「言不可以若是其幾也!人之言曰:『予無樂乎為君,唯其言而莫予違也。』如其善而莫之違也,不亦善乎?如不善而莫之違也,不幾乎一言而喪邦乎?」

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room just because you’re in charge. Your role is to bring the best minds together and listen to what they have to tell you. It’s only by hearing different perspectives on issues from people who aren’t afraid to challenge your thinking that you’ll be able to come to the best decision. Creating an open and trusting environment in which everyone feels comfortable about sharing their expertise and opinions is vital for ensuring the continued prosperity of your organization and preventing it from falling into ruin.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) In ancient China, ministers and officials had the duty to remonstrate with their rulers if they thought they were making a poor decision. Given the potentially fatal consequences of upsetting their all-powerful leader, however, many preferred to remain silent and nod in agreement with whatever insane idea he came up with.

(2) Duke Ding was the predecessor of Duke Ai as the ruler of Lu, and reigned from around 509 to 495 BCE. Although responsible for elevating Confucius to his highest official position as in the ministry of justice, the duke was said to be so weak that he was the kind of ruler who “held the blade of the sword and offered the handle to his enemies.” You can read about him here.

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

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