Leadership Lessons from Confucius: control of appointments

Confucius said: “It is five generations since control of appointments fell out of the hands of the ducal house. It is four generations since government fell into the hands of the ministers. For this reason, the descendants of the Three Families will fall into obscurity.”
孔子曰:「祿之去公室五世矣,政逮於大夫四世矣。故夫三桓之子孫微矣。」

Even during a time of rapid expansion, you should never compromise your hiring standards. The more people you bring in who do not fully meet your requirements, the more problems you are storing up for the future.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.

(1) Having vividly described the downward spiral a country goes into once “the way does not prevail” in 16.2, Confucius goes on to analyze how this process applies to his home state of Lu in the next chapter. Here is a breakdown:

a.) It is five generations since control of appointments fell out of the hands of the ducal house.

The five generations of the ducal house of Lu Confucius refers to are: Duke Xuan, who reigned from 608 to 591 BCE; Duke Cheng, who reigned from 590 to 573 BCE; Duke Xiang, who reigned from 572 to 542 BCE; Duke Zhao, who reigned from 541 to 510 BCE; and Duke Ding, who reigned from 509 to 495 BCE.

By his lifetime, the Duke of Lu was little more than a figurehead and the real power had been passed into the hands of the Three Families, the Ji, Meng, and Shu. Confucius had first-hand experience of the struggles the ducal family faced in asserting their authority when he established a close relationship with Duke Ding and was appointed by the duke to the position of minister of crime in around 500 BCE. A couple of years later, however, Confucius fled the state for exile purportedly in disgust at the duke and his chief minister Ji Huanzi cavorting with dancing girls sent by Duke Jing of Qi — though probably because of the failure of his strategy to rein in the power of the Three Families.

b.) It is four generations since government fell into the hands of the ministers. For this reason, the descendants of the Three Families will fall into obscurity.

The Ji, Meng, and Shu, collectively known as the Three Families, traced their lineage to the sons of Duke Huan of Lu (魯桓公), who lived from 711 to 694 BCE and was 15th ruler of the state. Among these, the Ji emerged as the most powerful with successive generations of family heads serving as chief minister. The four generations Confucius refers to here are: Ji Wenzi; Ji Wuzi, Ji Pingzi, and Ji Huanzi.

Confucius has a number of dialogs with Ji Kangzi, the son of Ji Huanzi, in the Analects. Although they do not appear to have been particularly close, it was Ji Kangzi who invited the sage to return to Lu after fourteen years of exile in 484 BCE.

Confucius proved to be correct with his prediction that the descendants of the Three Families would fall into obscurity, though this did not happen until nearly a hundred years after his death when Duke Mu (407 BC — 377 BCE) restored the power of the ducal house in the early part of his reign. In 249 BCE, however, Lu was annexed by the nearby state of Chu and the last Duke of Lu ended his days as a commoner.

I took this image in the ancient cedar forests on Alishan in central Taiwan. Some of the trees there are over a thousand years old.

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I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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Richard Brown

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.

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