Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a complete person

complete person

Zilu asked how to define a “complete person”. Confucius said: “Take someone as wise as Zang Wuzhong, as free from desire as Gongchuo, as brave as Zhuangzi of Bian, and as cultured as Ran Qiu, as well as being accomplished in ritual and music, and they may be considered a complete person.” Then he added: “But must a complete person be exactly like this today? Someone who thinks of what is right at the sight of profit, who is ready to risk their life when faced with danger, and who can endure hardship without forgetting the teachings that have guided their daily life may also be considered a complete person.”
子路問「成人」。子曰:「若臧武仲之知,公綽之不欲,卞莊子之勇,冉求之藝,文之以禮樂,亦可以為成人矣!」曰:「今之成人者,何必然?見利思義,見危授命,久要不忘平生之言,亦可以為成人矣!」

Nobody’s a complete person. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. That’s why assembling a strong team of people who complement each other in their abilities and personalities is so important. Nobody can do everything – and neither should they want to. A tight-knit and highly-motivated team can accomplish far more than even the most talented individual.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) This is the first and only time that the term “complete person” (成人/chéngrén) appears in the Analects. The moniker that Confucius usually uses to describe someone with such superhuman qualities is君子 (jūnzǐ), which I normally translate as “leader”.

(2) Zang Wuzhong (臧武仲) was the head of a powerful family in Confucius’s home state of Lu and apparently employed the sage’s father in his service. He had a great reputation for wisdom and was featured in the Commentary of Zuo (左傳/Zuǒchuán), one of the earliest Chinese historical works. Although Confucius praises him for his wisdom in this passage, he express a less positive opinion of Zang’s sense of morality in 14.14.

(3) Meng Gongchuo (孟公綽) was mentioned in the previous chapter of Book 14. Although Confucius wasn’t that impressed with his administrative capabilities, he wasn’t afraid to give him credit where credit was due.

(4) Zhuangzi (莊子) was an official in the walled city of Bian in the state of Lu, who was celebrated for his bravery. According to a popular legend, he came across two tigers eating a bull. Instead of trying to kill both of them, he waited until they had fought each other after eating their fill to put the two wounded animals to the sword.

(5) There is a great deal of speculation as to why Confucius a second, much lower, set of criteria for people of his age half-way through the passage. Some scholars see this as a reflection of the moral degeneracy of the times, while others see it as a way of encouraging Zilu to aspire to greater but achievable heights.

I took the top image at the Zhusi Academy in Qufu. Confucius is said to have taught his students here after returning to Lu from exile in in 848 BCE, as well as compiling the Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Rites, Book of Music, and Book of Changes. You can read more about the Zhusi Academy here.

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