Leadership Lessons from Confucius: set the right tone

set the right tone

When Ran Yong was serving as a steward of the Ji Family, he asked about governance. Confucius said: “First appoint your senior officials. Forgive small mistakes. Promote people of talent.” Ran Yong asked: “How do I recognize that someone has talent and deserves to be promoted?” Confucius said: “Promote those you know. Those you don’t know won’t be passed over.”
仲弓為季氏宰,問「政」。子曰:「先有司,赦小過,舉賢才。」曰:「焉知賢才而舉之?」曰:「舉爾所知,爾所不知,人其舍諸!」

As a leader, your role is to set the right tone for how your team operates by selecting the best talent and letting them get on with their work without attempting to micromanage them. Quite apart from demonstrating a lack of confidence in everyone’s ability to carry out their assignments, you’ll go crazy trying to keep up with everything they’re doing in any case!

When people inevitably make mistakes, the key is to make sure that they learn from them. Give them room to develop their abilities and expand their roles. The worst thing you can do is crush their enthusiasm with a heavy boot.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) It seems odd that Confucius was willing to offer Ran Yong such effusive advice on how to act as a steward of the Ji Family given that it would involve helping the clan leverage its control of the Lu government to pursue its own interests at the expense of the state and its titular ruler. Presumably Confucius had more confidence in Ran Yong’s ability to balance the inherent contradictions of this role than in Ran’s clansman Ran Qiu (冉求), whom he criticized harshly for his conduct in the same position.

(2) When he advises Ran Yong to “promote those you know”, Confucius isn’t recommending nepotism. He is referring to people who share his values and whose strengths and weaknesses he fully understands – in other words, ones he can trust to carry out their duties diligently and responsibly.

(3) This chapter marks the final bow for the follower Ran Yong in the Analects. You can read more about Ran Yong here.

I took this image near the Sanqing Temple in Yilan County. You can read more about the temple here.

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