Leadership Lessons from Confucius: break with convention?

break with convention

Zilu said: “When Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, Shao Hu took his own life but Guan Zhong chose to keep his. Should we say that Guan Zhong was a man without goodness?” Confucius said: “Duke Huan was able to bring the rulers of all the states together nine times without having to resort to military force because of the power of Guan Zhong. Such was his goodness! Such was his goodness!”

Is it only when your organization’s very survival is at stake that you’re willing to break with convention? When everything’s humming along smoothly do you have the courage to make daring decisions on people or products that fly in the face of accepted wisdom? Or are you content to keep on steering the ship on its current course?


This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Spring and Autumn Period politics was a nasty and brutal business. The situation in the state of Qi was no exception when Duke Huan, then still just Prince Xiaobai, and his elder brother Prince Jiu were forced to go into exile after their eldest brother Bohai had assumed the throne following the death of their father Duke Xi.

The next year, a high-ranking minister murdered Bohai (now known as Duke Xian) and usurped the throne – only to be assassinated by a rival minister another year later. Upon hearing the news Prince Jiu set his plans to return to Qi in motion, and to prevent his younger brother from arriving there before him ordered his two retainers Guan Zhong and Shao Hu to stop and kill him on the way to back to his homeland.

When they encountered Prince Xiaobai, Guan Zhong shot him with an arrow. After he reported the successful accomplishment of his mission to Prince Jiu, the prince then made a leisurely journey back to Qi only to find his younger brother installed on the throne as Duke Huan.

Following a failed attempt to seize power, Prince Jiu and his two retainers fled to the state of Lu where they had previously been living in exile. To eliminate the threat posed by them, Duke Huan demanded that the Duke of Lu execute his brother and send Guan Zhong and Shao Hu back to Qi.

Out of loyalty to his dead master, the grief-stricken Shao Hu refused to leave for Qi and committed suicide. Guan Zhong, however, chose to live on, and after he returned to his homeland was appointed chief minister by the very same man he had attempted to kill with an arrow!

Duke Huan’s decision to welcome his would-be-assassin back into the fold was vindicated by Guan Zhong’s hugely successful program of political and economic reforms that enabled him to become one of the most powerful state rulers during the entire Spring and Autumn Period. However, the question of whether Guan Zhong was morally correct to break with convention by ignoring the example of Shao Hu was a highly vexed one and remains a source of controversy to this day.

By the tone of his question Zilu clearly believes that Guan Zhong should have killed himself out of loyalty to his master like Shao Hu and expects Confucius to have the same opinion. The sage’s praise for Guan Zhong must therefore have come as quite a surprise to him – not to mention tying generations of scholars into ethical knots trying to figure out the reason for Confucius’s refusal to condemn the political giant for his decision to break with convention and live to fight another day.

Some commentators try to justify Confucius’s response by claiming that Guan Zhong’s great achievements as prime minister of Qi heavily outweighed Shao Hu’s suicide on the scales of morality. On the surface, this argument may seem to make sense, but given that Confucius was such a champion of upholding the practice and spirit of ritual (禮/lǐ), the unwritten rules and customs that bind society together, it’s hard not to conclude that the sage is being a tad hypocritical in overlooking Guan’s Zhong refusal to follow convention.

For all his fulsome praise of this towering historical icon, perhaps even Confucius hedges his bets with his final comment of “如其仁!如其仁!” (Such was his goodness! Such was his goodness!”) – which is ambiguous enough to suggest that Guan Zhong’s goodness was limited to his achievements in the political sphere and didn’t extend to his personal morality.

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and at the top of the scale goodness – high above Guan Zhong. You can read more about the temple here.

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