Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the power of positioning

power of positioning

Confucius said: “Duke Wen of Jin was crafty and improper; Duke Huan of Qi was proper and not crafty.”
子曰:「晉文公譎而不正,齊桓公正而不譎。」

Never underestimate the power of positioning to shape perceptions of you. It can make all the difference between being seen as a strong leader rather than a tyrannical bully or as a paragon of virtue rather than a grifting virtue signaler. Once you have crafted your story, be sure to remain authentic to it. A single rash deed or word can shatter your image in an instant.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Duke Wen of Jin and Duke Huan of Qi were two of the five so-called hegemons who at various times established domination over other states in the Zhou kingdom during the tumultuous Spring and Autumn period.

Duke Wen (697 – 628 BCE) spent many years in exile before returning to his home state of Jin in 636 BCE and expanding the size of its territories through a mix of military force and skillful diplomacy with neighboring neighboring states. He reportedly became so arrogant that he broke the ritual conventions by summoning the Zhou king to his court under the pretext of inviting him to a hunt in order to showcase his power and boost his prestige. This is why Confucius criticizes him as being “crafty and improper.”

Duke Huan ruled Qi from 685 BCE until his death in 643 BCE, making it the most powerful state in the Zhou kingdom at the time with the able assistance of his legendary chief minister Guan Zhong. Rather than resort to relentless wars of conquest, he persuaded the rulers of smaller and weaker states to unite with Qi in order to resist the threat of invaders from the north and restore peace and prosperity to the Zhou kingdom. Even when he entered a conflict with the state of Chu, the duke was able to position the decision as a necessary and proper reaction to Chu causing the death of King Zhao of Zhou in the Hanshui River during a military expedition. This is why Confucius (perhaps rather naively) praises him as being “proper and not crafty.”

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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