Leadership Lessons from Confucius: fine words and brave deeds

fine words

Confucius said: “The virtuous have a lot to teach others; but people who have a lot to teach others aren’t necessarily virtuous. The good are always brave; but the brave aren’t necessarily good.”

Fine words and brave deeds aren’t enough to prove that someone is truly virtuous or good. It can be all too easy for people to conceal their true nature with soaring oratory and ostentatious posturing when the potential downside is minimal and the potential upside in terms of publicity is huge. After all, calling for the government to bring an end to poverty after your financial advisors have optimized your tax liability costs you far less than actually digging into your pocket to fund some projects to address the problem yourself.


This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Confucius regularly voices his suspicion of people who talk the talk but don’t necessarily walk the walk in the Analects, starting in 1.3: “Smooth talk and an affected manner are seldom signs of goodness.” Other examples include 5.5 (“What use is eloquence? A smooth tongue creates many enemies.”), and 12.3 (“A person who practices goodness is cautious in speech.”).

(2) Confucius was concerned that the virtue of courage can very easily become a vice if it isn’t checked by other values. In 7.10, for example, he tells Zilu that he wouldn’t “choose someone who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death” to help him command an army. Rather, he would prefer “someone who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.”

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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