Leadership Lessons from Confucius: not a popularity contest

popularity contest

Zigong asked: “If a person is liked by all the people in their village, what would you think?” Confucius said: “That’s not good enough.” “And if this person is loathed by all the people in the village, what would you think?” “That’s not good enough either. It would be better if the good people in the village liked them and the bad people loathed them.”
子貢問曰:「鄉人皆好之,何如?」子曰:「未可也。」「鄉人皆惡之,何如?」子曰:「未可也。不如鄉人之善者好之,其不善者惡之。」

Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. You can’t please all the people all the time – and neither should you even try to. Instead you should focus on making the right decisions that best serve the interests of the people you’re leading. The “good” ones will instinctively understand what you’re doing and hence “like” or at least respect you, even if they don’t necessarily agree with every particular decision you make. As for the “bad” ones, the more they “loathe” you for the actions you take, the more they demonstrate that you’re on the right track.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Confucius was highly suspicious of people who were able to achieve celebrity merely by their looks and speech. He issues a number of warnings about the dangers posed by smooth talkers and thieves of virtue to social stability. See 12.20, 15.28, 17.13, and 17.18.

This image is of the entrance to Scholar Huang’s Residence in the Taiwan National Center of Traditional Arts in Yilan County. Originally located in Yilan City, the compound was dismantled in 1996 and rebuilt in the center in 2001. You can read more about it here.

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