Confucius said: “Although a leader may not always achieve goodness, a petty person never achieves it.”
We all make mistakes. When we do so, it’s important to pause and reflect on why it happened. Was it based on the right intentions or selfish motives? Did we deliberately cross the line or were we simply being careless? Was it an isolated incident or was it part of a pattern of recurring behavior? The deeper we dig, the greater the opportunity we have to learn more about ourselves and take the necessary steps to address the areas we need to improve in.
This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.
(1) This is an ambiguous passage that has caused much scholarly debate. The point seems to be that a leader can be forgiven for making the occasional mistake because they have their heart in the right place. No matter how many good deeds a petty person carries out, on the other hand, they still don’t have a chance of achieving goodness because they’re not doing them for the right reason.
(2) Compare and contrast this statement with Confucius’s comments in 4.5: “If a leader abandons goodness, how can they live up to that name? A leader never abandons goodness, even for as long as it takes to eat a single meal; in moments of haste and confusion they still stay true to it.” Perhaps Confucius became a little softer in his old age.
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.