Analects Book 14 themes: leadership for the common good

Leadership is one of the most important themes of Analects Book 14. In addition to seven mentions of the term 君子 (jūnzǐ), the text is littered with related passages exploring how a ruler or official should act.

One of Confucius’s favorite followers Nan Rong, named Nangong Kuo in the book, sets the ball rolling in 14.5 by comparing the fates of Yi the Archer and Ao the Sailor, two great martial heroes from antiquity, with those of the benevolent sage king Yu and Hou Ji, the inventor of new farming techniques that led to an explosive growth in agricultural productivity.

Neither Yi nor Ao “died a natural death” because they were assassinated after exploiting their martial prowess to usurp power for themselves. Yu and Ji, in contrast, “came to own the world” because they used their talents working for the common good by building irrigation schemes to fight floods and making farming more productive. Unlike their classical Greek counterparts, ancient Chinese heroes built their reputation serving the people rather than spilling blood on the battlefield!

In 14.6, Confucius uses a familiar device of comparing a leader with a petty person. While the former may not always achieve goodness, they are constantly aiming for it. In contrast, the latter will never achieve goodness because they are driven by baser motives. In 14.23, Confucius expresses the same idea in a different way when he says: “A leader goes high. A petty person goes low.”

One key aspect of going high is living up to your commitments. As Confucius puts it in 14.27: “A leader is ashamed if their actions don’t match their words.” In the next chapter he goes on to highlight the importance of constancy and clarity of purpose. Leaders are never anxious, perplexed, or afraid if they understand their mission and values and are committed to implementing them. Without this understanding and commitment, they are doomed to frustration and failure.

When Zilu asks him how to become a leader in 14.42, Confucius emphasizes the need to be respectful towards other people at all times in order to show that you care for them and are interested in what they have to say. If you cannot be bothered to pay attention while others are talking, you can’t blame them for switching off when it’s your time to take the stage. Leadership, in other words, is a reciprocal process. Only by showing that you are committed to working for the common good will people respond to you in a positive way.

Note: This image was taken in the tomb of the mother of Mencius just outside Qufu.


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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.