Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a true scholar-official

Zigong asked: “What qualities must you possess to be called a true scholar-official?” Confucius said: “A person who maintains a sense of humility and can be sent on a mission to the four corners of the earth without bringing disgrace to their ruler can be called a true scholar-official.” “May I ask what type of person ranks one step below that?” “A person who is praised by their relatives for their filial devotion and who is known by the people of their neighborhood for being respectful towards their elders.” “May I ask what type of person ranks one step below that?” “A person whose word can be trusted and who completes whatever task they undertake. In their stubborn determination, they may resemble a petty person, but they could still probably qualify as a scholar-official of a lower rank.” “How would you rate the people currently involved in public affairs?” “Sadly, these are people you measure by a bucket or scoop. They’re not even worth mentioning.”

How many hard-working and trustworthy people of a “lower rank” do you have in your organization with the potential to take on a leadership role? What steps are you taking to provide them with the experience and training they need to show what they’re really made of? As technologies like AI proliferate, you are going to need far more people who can act like a “true scholar-official” than ever before.


This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Confucius was a member of a growing class of educated young men known as 士/shì, who worked in administrative or advisory posts for the ruling class of the various states that comprised the Zhou kingdom. The best, though certainly not ideal, translation for the term in this particular context is scholar-official.

(2) Note how Confucius values people with a sense of humility and the ability to think on their feet above ones who are simply hard-working and trustworthy. He has no time at all for “people you measure by a bucket or scoop” whom we would describe today as bean counters or jobsworths.


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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.