Leadership Lessons from Confucius: seeing the best in people

seeing the best in people

Confucius said: “Without anticipating deception or suspecting bad faith, but still to be able to sense them beforehand, is that not what wisdom is?”

Always be ready to see the best in people but be sure to watch out for signs of the worst. That friendly reporter you bumped into at a networking event may just be digging for dirt on the hot startup you work for amid the snarky messages you’re exchanging with him. Or that empathetic new colleague you’ve begun to trust enough to share confidences with may just be waiting for the right moment to stab you in the back with the information you’ve given them.

While there’s no need to be paranoid about the intentions of others even if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, it does pay to be cautious in how you approach relationships with people you’ve just met. The consequences of a lapse in judgment can be hugely damaging to both your personal and professional life.


This article features a translation of Chapter 31 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Confucius was all for seeing the best in people in order to build constructive relationships, but he also counseled against being too naïve in this regard. When his follower Zai Yu asks him in 6.26 if a good person would jump into a well if they were told that someone was lying at the bottom of it, the sage replies: “Why should they? A leader may be enticed down the wrong path but not into a trap; they can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

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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