Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a crisis in Chen

Richard Brown
2 min readSep 28, 2021


In Chen, the food supplies were exhausted. His followers became so weak that they could not rise to their feet. Zilu came to him and said indignantly: “How is it possible for a leader to be brought to such dire straits?” Confucius said: “A leader stays resolute in even the direst of straits. Only a petty person loses their cool about it.”

Never waste a crisis! No matter how well or poorly you performed while the heavens were venting their fury, there is always something you can learn from it about yourself and the people you work with. Once the crisis is over, take some time to reflect on how you and everyone around you can be better prepared for the next one.

After all, it is not a question of if but when.

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

This incident is believed to have occurred in around 489 BCE when Confucius and his band of merry men got lost in the wilds of the state of Chen on their way to the state of Chu. There are many dramatic accounts of the tensions that bubbled up between Confucius and his followers as they struggled against hunger, sickness, exhaustion, and helplessness. Whether any of these are actually true is of course open to question.

Disappointingly, it is not clear how Confucius and his followers escaped from their predicament. According to Sima Qian, Confucius sent Zigong to Chu to summon a rescue party (though he fails to mention how Zigong made it there alone). Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the group simply blundered on until they reached a place of safety.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery in Qufu.



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.