Leadership Lessons from Confucius: rash promises

rash promises

Confucius said: “People who make rash promises will find them hard to keep.”
子曰:「其言之不怍,則為之也難!」

How do you capture attention in a culture where every new product is so environmentally friendly that it will save the planet and every new business model is so revolutionary that it will change the world as we know it?

Do you ramp up the hyperbole around your products and company to show that you, too, are on the leading edge of digital transformation? Or do you restrain your rhetoric to present a more realistic picture of the benefits your products and organization deliver to your customers and the market?

This is not an easy choice to make in the febrile atmosphere that pervades our times when people are desperate for simple solutions to complex problems. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that if you fail to deliver on the rash promises you make today, you’ll end up not just disappointing the people who bought into your narrative but also generating a backlash that you and your organization may never recover from.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) This is another passage in which Confucius advocates the need for people to match their deeds with their words. Other examples can be found in 2.13 (First accomplish what you want to say and then say it.); 4.24 (A leader should be slow to speak and prompt to act.); and 12.3 (A person who practices goodness is cautious in speech.).

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting a regent to the young King Cheng. You can read more about the temple here.

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