Leadership Lessons from Confucius: celebrity versus accomplishment
Zizhang asked: “When is it possible to say that someone is accomplished?” Confucius said: “It depends on what you mean by being accomplished.” Zizhang replied: “To be recognized in public and private life.” Confucius said: “That is celebrity, not accomplishment. An accomplished person is straightforward by nature and loves what is right. They listen to what others have to say, observe their moods and expressions, and are respectful to others. Such a person is sure to be accomplished in their public and private life. Someone seeking celebrity puts on an ostentatious display of goodness while behaving in the opposite way free of any self-doubt. They will definitely be recognized in their public and private life.”
Be very careful before you hire someone who has the perfect resume and comes with glowing letters of recommendation. Don’t take their accomplishments at face value. Dig deeper to find out what actual role they played in doubling annual sales or landing a major client by reaching out to others involved in the work. Perhaps the portrait they present of themselves doesn’t quite provide the true picture. Better to know what substance ls beneath the pretty package before you open it.
This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) Confucius was highly suspicious of people who pursued fame at the expense of real accomplishment. He is probably reminding his young and ambitious follower Zizhang to focus on practicing self-cultivation rather than seeking the limelight.
(2) You can see similar warnings from Confucius in 1.16 and 4.14:
Confucius said: “Don’t be concerned about other people failing to acknowledge your merits; be concerned about failing to acknowledge their merits.”
Confucius said: “Don’t care about not having an official position; care about making sure you have what it takes to secure one. Don’t care about not being acknowledged; focus on what can make you acknowledged.”