Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the sweet taste of victory?

sweet taste of victory

Nangong Kuo asked Confucius, saying: “Yi was a great archer and Ao was a great sailor, but neither died a natural death. Yu and Ji toiled on the land, but they came to own the world.” Confucius made no reply. Nangong Kuo left. Confucius said: “He’s a true leader! This man truly prizes virtue!”
南宮适問於孔子曰:「羿善射,奡盪舟,俱不得其死然。禹稷躬稼而有天下。」夫子不答。南宮适出,子曰:「君子哉若人!尚德哉若人!」

Political battles are inevitable in any organization. Resist the temptation to join the fray. Even if you do end up coming out on top, the sweet taste of victory will soon sour as you scramble to sort out the divisions that have emerged in its wake. Better to have focused your energy and talent in a positive direction in the first place.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) The identity of Nangong Kuo is disputed. Some commentators argue that he was the younger son of Meng Xizi (孟僖子), the head of one of the notorious Three Families who were the real power in the state of Lu. If this claim is true, Nan Rong would have been one of only two students from the nobility that Confucius taught along with his elder brother Meng Yizi (孟懿子). Others claim that he was the son of Meng Yizi. What isn’t in doubt is that Confucius thought so highly of him that he arranged for him to marry his niece. Read more about Nangong Kuo here.

(2) Yi and Ao were legendary martial heroes from the Xia dynasty (2070 –1600 BC) who ended up meeting untimely deaths because of their questionable morality. Yi was originally the ruler of a small state affiliated to the Xia and a great archer. Depending on which version of the legend you choose to believe, he saved the world by shooting down nine of the ten suns that threatened the earth, slayed a series of monsters that were menacing humanity, or shot out the left eye of the Lord of the Yellow River as a punishment for killing a multitude of people in heavy flooding.

After being made regent of the Xia king Tai Kang (太康) in recognition of his great feats, Yi usurped power for himself only to have it seized from his grasp by Ao, the son of one of his ministers who was famous for his prowess on water. After dethroning Yi, however, Ao met the same fate when he was assassinated by one of his own ministers.

(3) Yu and Hou Ji were honest sons of the soil who are said to have laid the foundations of Chinese civilization by saving the world from floods and inventing agriculture during the third millennium BCE.

In recognition of his great feats, Yu was designated by the legendary sage king Shun as his successor and went on to become the founder of the legendary Xia Dynasty. As his name implies, Hou Ji (Lord Millet) is credited with introducing the cultivation of the grain for human consumption. During reign of the legendary sage king Yao, he is also said to have helped fight back the floods that were ravaging the empire. Hou Ji later became the chieftain of the Ji Family that went on to establish the Zhou dynasty and was regarded as the god of grains in ancient China.

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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