Leadership Lessons from Confucius: fit for purpose?

Zai Yu asked: “Three years of mourning for your parents: this is a long time. If an exemplary person does not practice ritual for three years, ritual is sure to decay; if they do not practice music for three years, music is sure to collapse. As the grain from last year’s crop is used up, grain from this year’s crop ripens, and the flint for lighting the fires is changed with each season. One year of mourning is surely enough.” Confucius said: “Would you be comfortable eating your fine food and wearing your fine clothes then?” “Absolutely.” “In that case, go ahead! When an exemplary person is in mourning fine food is tasteless to them, music offers them no pleasure, and the comforts of home give them no peace, so they prefer to do without these pleasures. But if you think you will be able to enjoy them, go ahead.” Zai Yu left. Confucius said: “Zai Yu is not consummate in his conduct! During the first three years after a child is born, they do not leave the arms of their parents. Three years of mourning is a custom that is followed throughout the world. Did not Zai Yu receive three years of love from his parents?”

How many processes and procedures do you have in your organization that have outgrown their usefulness? What steps do you need to take to prune them so that they are fit for purpose or in some cases even eliminate them? Naturally there will be resistance to begin with, but people will come to welcome the changes once they begin to experience the benefits. Just because something has been done one way in the past does not mean that it cannot be changed to meet the needs of the present and future.


This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.

(1) Confucius was a staunch proponent of the traditional three-year (usually between 25 and 27 months) mourning period following the death of a parent. Indeed, he observed it after his mother passed away when he was in his early twenties (his father died when he was very young). However, even though people of his age paid lip service to the idea, only a very small minority had the time, money, and willpower required to detach themselves from their personal and family responsibilities for so long.

(2) The young follower Zai Yu loved to wind Confucius up by asking him awkward questions. He certainly succeeds in hitting a sore spot with his well-reasoned argument that the mourning period should be shortened to a more manageable one-year period. Indeed, for all his bluster about the three-year mourning period being practiced throughout the world, Confucius fails to provide a convincing explanation of why it should not be shortened.

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.