Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a question of trust

Richard Brown
5 min readMay 1, 2022


The head of the Ji Family was preparing to attack Zhuanyu. Ran Qiu and Zilu went to see Confucius and said: “Ji Kangzi is going to intervene in Zhuanyu.”

Confucius said: “Ran Qiu! Is this not your fault? A long time ago, our ancient kings gave the lord of Zhuanyu the responsibility of offering sacrifices to Mount Dongmeng. Moreover, Zhuanyu lies in the heart of the borders of Lu and its lord is a minister of our state who looks after the altars of grain. Why on earth would you attack it?”

Ran Qiu said: “This is the wish of our master. The two of us oppose it.”

Confucius said: “Ran Qiu! Zhou Ren had a saying, ‘He who has strength stands firm; he who lacks strength withdraws.’ What sort of retainers are ones who cannot steady their master when he stumbles or stop him when he is about to fall? In any case, what you said is mistaken. If a tiger or rhinoceros escapes from its cage or if a tortoise shell or a jade amulet is broken in its casket, who is at fault?”

Ran Qiu said: “But Zhuanyu has strong defenses and is close to the Ji Family stronghold at Bi. If he does not take it today, in the future it is sure to become a threat to his children and grandchildren.”

Confucius said: “Ran Qiu! An exemplary person despises those who invent excuses for their actions instead of simply saying that they want to do them. I have heard it said that rulers of state or heads of noble families worry about the unfair distribution of wealth rather than poverty and social instability rather than a small population size. If wealth is distributed fairly, there will be no poverty. If there is harmony, there will be no lack of population. If there is stability, there will be no unrest. It is for this reason that if distant peoples are still not won over, you must cultivate your cultural refinement and excellence to attract them; and then, once they have come, you must make them feel secure. As his retainers, Ran Qiu and Zilu, you have failed to help your master to win over distant peoples and to prevent the state from falling apart because of divisions and unrest. Instead, you are plotting to wage war within the borders of the state itself! I am afraid that for the Ji Family, the real threat does not come from Zhuanyu, but lies within the walls of their own palace!”


How should you react when your boss gets some crazy notion in their head and instructs you to carry it out for them? Do you risk your job by openly opposing the idea? Or do you dutifully nod your head in agreement and then go and complain to others about how powerless you are to stop it?

Your answer to this dilemma lies in how much you trust your boss. Are they the kind of person who is willing to listen to what you have to say? Or will they bridle at you voicing your concerns? If the latter is the case, you should seriously consider looking for another opportunity elsewhere.

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.

(1) This is one of the longest and most dramatic passages in the Analects. You can hear the frustration and anger in Confucius’s voice as he berates Ran Qiu and Zilu for their failure to oppose Ji Kangzi’s plan to swallow up the small vassal state of the Zhuanyu. As two of the most loyal followers of Confucius, they already knew it was their duty to remonstrate with their lord no matter what the consequences would be but lacked the courage to do so. To make matters worse, Ran Qiu goes on to manufacture the ludicrous pretext that this small territory could become a threat to the Ji Family one day if they did launch a pre-emptive strike against it now. No wonder Confucius delivers such a stinging rebuke!

(2) Although both Ran Qiu and Zilu were among the most loyal followers of Confucius, they still had to pay the bills — even if that meant serving as senior retainers for the Ji Family, which the sage reviled for usurping power in his home state of Lu. This must have made their failure to oppose Ji Kangzi’s plan to occupy Zhuanyu all the more galling to Confucius. To him, the duty of an official or retainer was to make sure that the ruler or minister they served followed the right path — not to blindly follow their orders. Seeing two men he had been so close with for many years ignore one of this core teachings must have been totally demoralizing.

(3) During the Spring and Autumn period, rulers were keen to attract people to live in their state in order to boost its agricultural production and military strength. Confucius argued that the only way to achieve this goal (and of course maintain the existing population) was through good governance.

(4) Zhuanyu was a small vassal state of Lu that was ruled by a minor noble family who claimed descent from the legendary sage-king Fu Xi and had been given the responsibility of carrying out sacrifices to Mount Dongmeng by a prior Zhou dynasty king. Zhuanyu was located inside the border of Lu to the west of Bi, which was a fief of the Ji Family. Its proximity, not to mention its relative weakness, no doubt made it an attractive target to them.

(5) Zhou Ren was an ancient historian.

(6) Since there are no records of the Ji Family going on to take Zhuanyu as its own, it is possible that Confucius’s words may have had their desired effect.

(7) This is the final appearance of the follower Ran Qiu in the Analects. This passage is symbolic of the contentious relationship that Confucius had with him.

I took this image in the ancient cedar forests on Alishan in central Taiwan. Some of the trees there are over a thousand years old.



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.