Leadership Lessons from Confucius: first impressions

first impressions

Someone asked about Zichan. Confucius said: “He was a generous man.” “And what about Zixi?” “Don’t even mention his name!” “And what about Guan Zhong?” “What a man! He seized over three hundred households in Pian from the head of the Bo family. But even though he was reduced to eating coarse food until the end of his days, the poor man could never bring himself to utter a single word of complaint against him.”
或問「子產」,子曰:「惠人也。」問「子西」,曰:「彼哉彼哉!」問「管仲」,曰:「人也,奪伯氏駢邑三百,飯疏食,沒齒無怨言。」

The first impressions you have of someone can be deceptive for any number of reasons. Don’t let them cloud your judgment of the person. The more time you spend with them, the greater the opportunity you will have to evaluate them. Perhaps they’ll exceed your initial expectations or fail to meet them. The only way to find out is to give them a chance to show what they’re truly made of.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) We first encountered Zichan in 5.16. He was renowned for the brilliance of his leadership as the chief minister of the state of Zheng from about 544 BCE until his death in 521 BCE. Confucius was a great admirer of him and is said to have wept when he heard of his death. You can learn more about Zichan here.

(2) Some commentators speculate that Zixi was the successor to Zichan as the chief minister of the state of Zheng and that Confucius is highlighting the poor job he did compared to his predecessor. A small number go as far as to suggest that he may even have been Zichan’s brother. Others believe that Zixi was a chief minister of the state of Chu and persuaded its ruler Duke Zhao from offering Confucius employment.

(3) Guan Zhong was the chief minister of Qi in the seventh century, about 150 years before Confucius lived, and perhaps the biggest political star of his age. In 3.22 Confucius roundly criticizes Guan Zhong’s excesses, so it’s surprising to see him praising him so highly in this passage and 14.17. I can’t find any particularly persuasive explanations for Confucius’s change of heart, though some commentators suggest that the sage is saying that Guan Zhong made the right decision to confiscate the land from the head of the aristocratic Bo family because of the nature of his (unspecified) crime. The fact that the man accepted his fate without complaint adds credence to this theory. You can learn more about Guan Zhong here.

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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