Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a lucky escape?
Yang Huo wanted to see Confucius, but Confucius would not see him. Yang Huo sent him a suckling pig. Confucius chose a time when Yang Huo was not at home to call on him and give his thanks but ran into him along the way. Yang Huo said to Confucius: “Come! I have something to say to you.” He continued: “Can you be called consummate in your conduct if you keep your talents hidden while your country has gone astray? I do not think so. Can you be called wise if you are eager to take part in public affairs, but constantly miss the opportunity to do so? I do not think so. The days and months fly by; time is not on our side.” Confucius said: “All right, I shall accept an office.”
How to decline an offer politely? In theory, a simple “no, thank you” should suffice. But in cases where someone is insistent that you accept their offer, it may be necessary to take more elaborate steps to avoid them until their interest wanes. Just make sure you have a backup plan in place just in case you happen to run into them where you least expect to.
This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.
(1) Despite touting his talents widely, Confucius never succeeded in securing the high-level official position that he craved so much. One of the very few serious offers he got was from a former retainer of the Ji family called Yang Huo. After rebelling against the Ji and taking over its stronghold at Bi, Yang ruled part of Confucius’s home state of Lu for a period of about four years just before the turn of the fifth century BCE. In 502 BCE, Yang was defeated following the failure of his plot to assassinate Ji Huangzi, the head of the Ji family, and fled into exile in the state of Qi.
Even though there was no love lost between him and the Ji family, Confucius was understandably unwilling to meet a rebel like Yang. When his stratagem to avoid doing so fails he is uncharacteristically lost for words under Yang’s brutal barrage. The only way to get away from him is by mumbling his agreement to accept a position in his administration.
Many commentators argue that Confucius was only being polite in giving his assent to Yang’s request and that he had no intention of living up his commitment. Since there are no records that Confucius did actually take up the position that Yang offered him, this is a plausible explanation of his behavior.
Less sympathetic observers may have a different perspective on the incident, however. Perhaps Confucius was so overpowered by the force of Yang’s arguments that he was tempted, even if only briefly, to accept this offer in order to show the world his talents.
If indeed this was the case, Confucius had a lucky escape by not following up on the offer. Although he would no doubt have provided a useful PR prop for Yang’s ambitions, working for such an unsavory character would no doubt have destroyed the sage’s reputation and possibly cost him his life when Yang’s forces were defeated by Ji family loyalists.
I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.