Leadership Lessons from Confucius: checks and balances

Zilu said: “Does an exemplary person prize courage?” Confucius said: “An exemplary person prizes rightness above all else. An exemplary person who is courageous but lacking in rightness could create chaos; a petty person who is courageous but lacking in rightness could become a bandit.”
子路曰:「君子尚勇乎?」子曰:「君子義以為上。君子有勇而無義為亂,小人有勇而無義為盜。」

Your greatest strength often turns out to be your greatest weakness. Courage can easily be transformed into recklessness if you do not balance it with appropriate caution. That does not mean you should avoid making a bold leap, but that you should go into it for the right reasons and preferably with a backup plan should everything go wrong.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.

(1) This is another instance of Confucius tailoring his teachings to highlight specific issues that his followers needed to address. He missed no opportunity to remind Zilu to tame his impulsiveness, as these examples in 5.7 and 7.11 illustrate. It’s a great pity that Zilu paid no heed to these warnings, needlessly charging to his death to rescue the minister he served during a bloody coup in the state of Wei.

Confucius said: “If the way doesn’t prevail, I’ll take a raft and put out to sea. I’m sure Zilu will come with me.” When he heard this, Zilu was delighted. Confucius said: “Zilu is much braver than I am, but he brings no materials to make the raft with.”

Confucius said to Yan Hui: “To take office when needed and to stay out of sight when dismissed: only you and I can do this.” Zilu said: “If you had command of the Three Armies, who would you appoint to help you?” Confucius said: “I wouldn’t choose someone who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death. But I would choose someone who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.”

I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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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.