Leadership Lessons from Confucius: an exercise in futility

exercise in futility

Chen Chengzi assassinated Duke Jian of Qi. Confucius took a bath and went to court, where he told Duke Ai of Lu: “Chen Heng murdered his ruler. Please punish him.” The Duke said: “Report this to the three lords.” Confucius said: “As a former official myself, I had no choice but to make this report. Yet my lord has only said, ‘Report this to the three lords.’” He went and made his report to the three lords. They refused to intervene. Confucius said: “As a former official myself, I had no choice but to make this report.”

Think very carefully before you decide to poke your nose in other people’s business. Of course, there’s always a chance that they may listen to you, but it’s much more likely that it will turn out to be an exercise in futility.


This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Confucius was in his early seventies when the assassination of Duke Jian of the neighboring state of Qi occurred. Since was no longer serving as an official, he had no business reporting the news of the murder to Duke Ai. Even though he already knew that the duke would do nothing about it, he felt he had a moral duty to so and hence carried out a ritual bath before going to remonstrate with his ruler. Duke Ai confirmed Confucius’s fears by asking him to report the news to the heads of the “Three Families” that were the real powers behind his throne. Naturally they had no interest in getting involved, leaving Confucius to gnash his teeth in despair at his lack of influence and power. Following this exercise in futility, Confucius never attempted to involve himself in state affairs again before his death two years later.

(2) Chen Chengzi, who Confucius calls by his personal name of Chen Heng, was a chief minister of Qi and the head of the powerful Chen Family. He assassinated Duke Jian in 481 BCE and installed a puppet ruler in the duke’s place to consolidate his power over the state.

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting a regent to the young King Cheng. You can read more about the temple here.

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