Leadership Lessons from Confucius: when to walk away

walk away

Confucius said: “The worthy withdraw from the world because it’s fallen into chaos; next come those who withdraw from their state because it’s fallen into disorder; next come those who withdraw because of their ruler’s evil looks; and next come those who withdraw because of their ruler’s threatening words.” Confucius said: “The number of people who did this was seven.”
子曰:「賢者辟世,其次辟地,其次辟色,其次辟言。」子曰:「作者七人矣!」

Sometimes it’s OK to walk away when things aren’t moving in the right direction. Just be sure not to confuse a minor disagreement with a fundamental difference of opinion or a demanding boss with a psychopath. Take some time to clarify whether you’re leaving for the right reasons rather than in a fit of frustration. Every organization poses unique challenges that you need to learn to deal with. Put everything in the right perspective before you decide to walk away.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 37 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) This is an ambiguous passage. The most likely interpretation is that Confucius is warning officials and ministers that they should only resign from their duties in the most extreme circumstances. This is a topic he is talking about from experience, having left Lu in 497 BCE purportedly in protest at its ruler Duke Ding neglecting his official duties in favor of cavorting with a troupe of dancing girls provided by the Duke of Qi.

(2) I have tweaked the translation based on this assumption. A more literal one would read something like this:

Confucius said: “The worthy withdraw from the world; next come those who withdraw from a particular state; next come those who withdraw because of a particular look; next come those who withdraw because of a particular word.” Confucius said: “Seven men did this.”

This version has much more of a Daoist flavor to it because Confucius sounds as if he is encouraging people to abandon their responsibilities and head for the hills. Given that Confucius spent fourteen years in search of another ruler to employ him after leaving Lu, such an angle is highly unlikely.

(3) Nobody has any idea of the identities of the seven people Confucius refers to, though that hasn’t stopped generations of scholars speculating about them. Not surprisingly, the hard-core hermits Boyi and Shuqi are frequently included in the list.

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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