Leadership Lessons from Confucius: avoiding favoritism

Richard Brown
2 min readApr 5, 2019


Confucius asked Zigong: “Who is better, you or Yan Hui?” Zigong replied: “How can I compare myself with Yan Hui? When he learns one thing, he gets to understand ten more things; but if I learn one thing, I only get to understand two more things.” Confucius said: “You are certainly not his equal and neither am I.”

It’s unwise to play favorites among your team members. You’ll only end up putting unreasonable pressure on your anointed one to meet your heightened expectations and fueling resentment among everyone else.

While I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, Confucius doesn’t give his faithful friend and follower Zigong much choice in how to answer when he asks him to compare himself with the boy wonder Yan Hui. Talk about a leading question! How else could Zigong respond other than by telling the sage what he wanted to hear?

As for Confucius’s admission that even he can’t match Yan Hui’s towering genius, the less said the better. Even though I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, Confucius’s glowing assessment must have only added to the burden on his protégé to live up to the star billing the sage has accorded to him.

Avoiding favoritism isn’t easy, but it’s the core responsibility of any leader to treat everyone with equal consideration and respect. While there may be occasions when it’s appropriate to single a specific individual out for special praise, think very careful about the potential implications before you take the plunge.


This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) Yan Hui was the James Dean of his era, dying at the age of only thirty-two and thus unable to achieve the potential that Confucius saw in him. His untimely passing left Confucius feeling so bereft that he was accused by his other followers of showing “excessive grief”. Even the early death of his son, Bo Yu, didn’t trigger anything near the same level of anguish in the sage.

(2) Perhaps not too surprisingly, some hard-core Confucianistas have found it difficult to accept the idea that Confucius would admit that he was not the equal of Yan Hui. They have argued vehemently that the character 與 (yǔ) in the final sentence should be read as a verb meaning “to approve” rather than as the conjunction “and”. Such an interpretation would change the meaning of the last sentence to something like “you are not his equal, I agree, you are not his equal.” In the unlikely event that this is correct, it would make for a brutal put-down for poor Zigong!

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.



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.