Leadership lessons from Confucius: say what you mean

say what you mean

Zilu asked: “If the Duke of Wei were to entrust you with the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” Confucius said: “It most definitely would be to rectify the names.” Zilu said: “Really? Isn’t that a little strange? How would that make things right?” Confucius said: “How dense can you get! If a leader doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, they should remain silent. If the names aren’t correct, language doesn’t accord with the truth of things. When language doesn’t accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully. When nothing can be carried out successfully, ritual and music won’t flourish. When the ritual and music don’t flourish, punishments and penalties miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, the people don’t know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever they want to talk about, and must also make sure they does exactly as they says. When it comes to speaking, a leader doesn’t allow any carelessness.”
子路曰:「衛君待子而為政,子將奚先?」子曰:「必也正名乎!」子路曰:「有是哉?子之迂也!奚其正?」子曰:「野哉,由也!君子於其所不知,蓋闕如也。名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成;事不成,則禮樂不興;禮樂不興,則刑罰不中;刑罰不中,則民無所措手足。故君子名之必可言也,言之必可行也。君子於其言,無所茍而已矣!」

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. The further you deviate from the truth, the greater the problems you’ll cause – not just for you but everyone around you.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) The Duke of Wei referred to by Zilu is most likely Duke Chu of Wei (衛出公). The grandson of the notoriously decadent Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公), he immediately assumed the throne of the state because his father, the former crown prince Ji Kuaikui (姬蒯瞶), was living in exile when Duke Ling died in 492 BCE after a failed attempt to kill the duke’s concubine Nanzi (南子). When Kuaikui asked to returned to Wei to pay his respects to his father, the newly-crowned duke refused out of fear that he would seek to overthrow him. This is exactly what happened twelve years later in 480 BCE, when Kuaikui hatched a cunning plan with his eldest sister to take what he saw as he saw as rightful place on the throne. When he got wind of the plot Duke Chu fled to safety in the state of Lu, leaving his father to take the reins of power.

(2) With his opening question, Zilu is implying that if Confucius chooses to recognize Duke Chu as the legitimate ruler of Wei he has a great chance of being appointed prime minister. By emphasizing the importance of using the correct name or term to describe something, however, Confucius is indirectly suggesting that according to the rules and traditions of succession the duke’s father is the rightful ruler – never mind if he lacks the character or ability to be an effective one. By adopting an inappropriate title, Confucius goes on to argue, Duke Chu is planting the seeds for even greater chaos in a state by basing his rule on a falsehood: “When language doesn’t accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully.”

(3) For more on the rectification of the names, see 12.11 and 13.14.

I took this image in the stunning primal forest of Taipingshan. You can read more about the magical place here.

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