Leadership Lessons from Confucius: do you repay evil with kindness?

repay evil with kindness

Someone said: “What do you think of the old saying ‘repay evil with kindness?’” Confucius said: “In that case how will you repay kindness? Better repay evil with justice, and kindness with kindness.”
或曰:「以德報怨,何如?」子曰:「何以報德?以直報怨,以德報德。」

What kind of signal are you sending if you tolerate poor behavior from people around you? Are you doing them any favors by letting them get away with being rude to you and others? Are you helping them prepare for their next step up the career ladder by allowing them to badmouth their colleagues or to push you into giving them the most high-profile assignments? Or would you be doing them a greater service by quietly but firmly drawing the line and making it very clear what the consequences will be if they step over it?

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 34 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) “Repay evil with kindness” (以德報怨) is a traditional saying. Another version of it (報怨以德) can be found in Chapter 63 of the Daodejing. Some commentators interpret Confucius’s response as a veiled criticism of Daoist teachings, but it’s more likely he’s simply making the point that a leader should give the appropriate response to a particular type of behavior. Rewarding people for poor behavior will simply encourage them to act even worse in the future.

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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