Leadership Lessons from Confucius: speak cautiously

speak cautiously

Confucius said: “When the way prevails in a state, speak boldly and act boldly. When the way doesn’t prevail in a state, act boldly but speak cautiously.”

There’s no point in speaking out when your words will fall on deaf ears. Wait until people are ready to listen to what you have say before you open your mouth. If the boss is in a foul mood or dealing with yet another crisis, the chances of him or her agreeing to your proposal are slim in any case. Better to keep your head down and wait for the storm to pass while continuing to do the right thing. Timing is everything.


This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Serving as a minister or high-level official was a perilous undertaking throughout Chinese imperial history, given that one of the main responsibilities of the position was to speak out when you thought that your ruler was following the wrong path and acting against the interests of the people and the state. Naturally, many ministers and officials shirked from this duty out of a sense of self-preservation, but even those who took it seriously found themselves having to deal with the dilemma of deciding whether or not to speak out when the ruler was so corrupt and immoral that he wouldn’t even bother to listen to their advice or – worse still – have them imprisoned or executed. Confucius’s advice was to “speak cautiously” under such circumstances so as not to draw unnecessary attention to yourself while still continuing to stay true to your moral principles in your conduct. In other words, he saw no point in attempting to fight an unwinnable battle. Better to preserve your powder for a time when the conditions are more favorable.

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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