Leadership Lessons from Confucius: achieve the greatest impact
Fan Chi asked to learn about cultivating grain. Confucius said: “You’d be better off asking an old farmer.” Fan Chi asked to learn about raising vegetables. Confucius said: “You’d be better off asking an old gardener.” After Fan Chi had left, Confucius said: “What a petty person! When a ruler loves ritual, the people don’t dare to be disrespectful. When a ruler loves rightness, the people don’t dare to be disobedient. When a ruler loves trustworthiness, the people don’t dare to be deceitful. If such a ruler existed, people would flock to them from everywhere with their children strapped to their backs. What need would there be to learn about farming?”
Your time and talent are precious. Focus them on where you’ll achieve the greatest impact. If you manage a team concentrate on making sure that you have the right people, culture, and processes in place to make sure it operates successfully. Leave the technical and operational questions for the appropriate experts.
This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.
(1) Some modern critics have seized on these comments as proof that Confucius held back the technological development of China with his alleged disdain for practical subjects such as agriculture. While there is certainly a grain (sorry) of truth to this, it’s important to note that Confucius recognizes that he isn’t qualified to respond to the questions and directs his rather dim-witted follower to consult with agricultural experts. More fundamentally, Confucius is arguing that members of the ruling elite should focus on their number one responsibility of creating the right moral climate for society to operate under rather than engage in manual tasks that should be left for the common people to carry out. As he points in this passage, if they did this, “people would flock to them from everywhere with their children strapped to their back” and willingly till the land.
(2) It’s possible that Fan Chi may have asked these questions to find out Confucius’s opinions about the so-called primitivist or proto-Daoist “back to the land” movement that was gaining increasing popularity among disillusioned members of the elite at the time. Arguing that society had become too corrupt and chaotic to reform, leaders of this movement encouraged officials and intellectuals to drop out and lead the life of a recluse in the countryside. Confucius naturally condemned such behavior, seeing it as a betrayal of the responsibilities of the elite. You can find descriptions of encounters with figures from this movement in 18.6 and 18.7.