Leadership Lessons from Confucius: for fate to decide

fate to decide

Gongbo Liao made accusations against Zilu to the head of the Ji Family. Zifu Jingbo reported this to Confucius, saying: “My master’s mind is being led astray by Gongbo Liao; but I still have enough power to have Liao’s corpse splayed open in the market and court.” Confucius said: “Will the way prevail? That’s for fate to decide. Will the way be cast aside? That’s for fate to decide. What does Gongbo Liao matter compared with fate?”

How confident are you that your internal systems deliver the outcomes they were designed to achieve? Does that automated customer service app you introduced last year truly speed up the processing of enquiries and complaints? Or does it force the very people who keep you in business to go elsewhere because it’s so complicated to use?

How regularly do you test the effectiveness of the systems yourself? Or do you just rely on the pretty tables and charts in the neatly packaged reports and slide decks your staff prepare for you? Before congratulating everyone on a job well done, perhaps you should take a closer look. Unless of course you are happy for fate to decide.


This article features a translation of Chapter 36 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) There is some dispute over the identity of the head of the Ji Family featured in this passage. While many commentators assume that it is Ji Kangzi, Confucius’s usual sparring partner in the Analects, this would date the incident after the return of Confucius from exile in 483 BCE. This is possible, though it is much more likely that it occurred just before Confucius left for exile fourteen years earlier. This was a time when tensions were very high in Lu as a result of a series of internal revolts. With the backing of Confucius, Zilu led a major initiative to raze the fortified cities of the Three Families in order to root out the rebels living there. Since this initiative also threatened to weaken the power of the Three Families themselves, it attracted a huge amount of opposition – and is probably the source of the accusations against Zilu mentioned here. If this is the case, the head of the Ji Family would have been Ji Kangzi’s father, Ji Huanzi.

(2) Some sources identify Gongbo Liao as a steward of the Ji Family who worked together with Zilu while he served in similar position. Other sources say he was a minister of the state of Lu. Quite possibly he may have acted in both capacities. The great historian Sima Qian lists Gongbo Liao as a follower of Confucius, though this seems highly unlikely – not least because of his attempt to slander Zilu in this passage.

(3) Zifu Jingbo was a high-level official in the government of Lu. Presumably he was much more influential than Gongbo Liao given his boast that he still possessed enough power “to have Liao’s corpse splayed open in the market and court” for slander. Curiously, he also made Sima Qian’s list of Confucius’s followers as well.

(4) Nobody knows the exact nature of the accusations Gongbo Liao made against Zilu – though they were presumably extremely serious given the vehemence with which Zifu Jingbo responded to them. Perhaps the severity of Jingbo’s threat against him deterred Gongbo from further pursuing them since there are no records of him doing so.

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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