Leadership lessons from Confucius: like a wooden bell clapper

wooden bell clapper

儀封人請見,曰:「君子之至於斯也,吾未嘗不得見也。」從者見之。出曰:「二三子何患於喪乎?天下之無道也久矣,天將以夫子為木鐸。」
A border official at the town of Yi requested a meeting with Confucius. He said: “Whenever a distinguished man comes to these parts, I never fail to meet him.” The follower arranged for him to meet Confucius. After coming out of it the official said: “Sirs, why worry about his dismissal? The world has been without the way for a long while. Heaven is going to use your master like a wooden bell clapper.”

How to deal with a career-threatening setback? Stay and fight your corner or flee the scene for pastures new? Confucius opted for the latter course in 497 BCE ostensibly out of outrage at his ruler Duke Ding cavorting with a troupe of dancing girls sent by the ruler of the state of Qi but more likely because of the failure of his policies to rein in the power of the Three Families by razing the walls that surrounded their cities. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: like a wooden bell clapper

Leadership lessons from Confucius: perfect harmony

perfect harmony

子語魯大師樂,曰:「樂其可知也:始作,翕如也;從之,純如也,皦如也,繹如也,以成。 (1) (2)
Confucius was talking about music with the music master of Lu. He said: “We can know this much about music: It begins with everyone trying to play together; when it gets in full swing it flows in perfect harmony, melody, and purity of tone until it reaches the end.”

A leader is like the conductor of an orchestra. Your job is to make sure that no matter what their function is everyone and comes together and works in perfect harmony to achieve a common mission. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: perfect harmony

Leadership lessons from Confucius: shades of grey

shades of grey

子曰:「管仲之器小哉。」或曰:「管仲儉乎?」曰:「管氏有三歸,官事不攝,焉得儉?然則管仲知禮乎?」曰:「邦君樹塞門,管氏亦樹塞門。邦君為兩君之好,有反坫,管氏亦有反坫。管氏而知禮,孰不知禮?」
Confucius said: “Guan Zhong had his limitations.” Someone objected: “Do you mean that Guan Zhong wasn’t frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know ritual?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew ritual, then who doesn’t know it?”

How to deal with larger-than-life characters who make outsize contributions to your organization? Do you call them out for their excesses or do you turn a blind eye to them? Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: shades of grey

Leadership lessons from Confucius: what’s done is done

what's done is done

哀公問社於宰我。宰我對曰:「夏后氏以松,殷人以柏,周人以栗,曰,使民戰栗。」子聞之,曰:「成事不說,遂事不諫,既往不咎。」
Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar pole of the land god. Zai Yu replied: “The Xia used pine; the Yin used cypress; the Zhou used chestnut. It’s said that they wanted it to make people tremble with fear.” When Confucius heard of this, he said: “What’s done is done; no need to dredge up the past; let bygones be bygones.” (1) (2)

When someone does something dumb like Zai Yu here, it’s best to move on and forget that it ever happened. What’s done is done. There’s no point in discomfiting people by bringing up the past. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: what’s done is done

Leadership lessons from Confucius: the cry of the ospreys

cry of the ospreys

子曰:「關睢,樂而不淫,哀而不傷。」
Confucius said: “The Cry of the Ospreys is joyful without being wanton and sad without being distressing.” (1)

Words matter – particularly at a time when they can be so easily misinterpreted the moment they’re published online. That’s why it’s so important to choose them wisely when speaking or writing so that they convey exactly the right meaning and tone. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: the cry of the ospreys

Duke Ding of Lu

Duke Ding (魯定公) was the predecessor of Duke Ai (哀公) as the ruler of Lu, and reigned from around 509 to 495 BC. Although responsible for elevating Confucius to his highest official position as Minister of Justice (大司寇) of Lu, the duke was ultimately at least indirectly responsible for Confucius’s decision to go into exile because of his inability to control the Three Families, who were the de facto rulers of the state. Indeed, Duke Ding was said to be so weak that he was the kind of ruler who “held the blade of the sword and offered the handle to his enemies.” Continue reading Duke Ding of Lu

Daodejing: New English Translation

Read this new English translation of the Daodejing to learn more about the timeless wisdom of Laozi, one of China’s most famous philosophers.

Daodejing Chapter 1
老子道德經第一章

「道可道,非常道,名可名,非常名。無名天地之始,有名萬物之母。故常無欲以觀其妙,常有欲以觀其徼,此兩者同出而異名,同謂之玄,玄之又玄,眾妙之門。」
The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way;
The name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named is the mother of the myriad things.
Therefore, by always remaining free of desire you can observe its secrets;
While by always remaining full of desire, you can observe its manifestations.
The two emerge from the same source,
But they have different names;
Call them both mysteries;
Mystery upon mystery;
The gateway to all secrets.

Continue reading Daodejing: New English Translation

Leadership lessons from Confucius: a two-way street

two-way street

定公問:「君使臣,臣事君,如之何?」孔子對曰:「君使臣以禮,臣事君以忠。」
Duke Ding asked: “How should a lord treat his ministers? How should ministers serve their lord?” Confucius replied: “A lord should treat his ministers in accordance with ritual; ministers should serve their lord with loyalty.” (1) (2)

Leadership is a two-way street. Treat your staff as you wish to be treated. Be polite and listen to what they have to say and they will be polite and listen to what you have to say. Remain calm and collected during a crisis and they will remain calm and collected. Continue reading Leadership lessons from Confucius: a two-way street

Analects of Confucius Book 1: Overview

Lingxing Gate, Temple of Confucius, Qufu
Lingxing Gate, Temple of Confucius, Qufu

Before you read a single word of the Analects, it is important to understand that the work comprises a collection of conversations and aphorisms rather than a manifesto. Each of its twenty books features multiple exchanges between multiple characters discussing multiple topics – much like a modern-day social media feed. There are no linear arguments based on carefully-marshaled facts that build up to a resounding conclusion. It is left to you, the reader, to pick through the various threads of the text and connect them to the others to build up your overall understanding of the teachings contained in it.
Continue reading Analects of Confucius Book 1: Overview

Analects of Confucius Book 2: New English Translation

Read this new English translation of the Analects of Confucius Book 2 to learn more about the teachings of China’s most famous philosopher. Its main themes include leadership, filial devotion, learning, thinking, and trust. 

Chapter 1
子曰:「為政以德,譬如北辰,居其所而眾星共之。」
Confucius said: “Governing by the power of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star, which remains fixed in place while all the other stars orbit respectfully around it.”
Continue reading Analects of Confucius Book 2: New English Translation