Leadership Lessons from Confucius: if only, if only, if only

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 25, 2022


Chen Ziqin said to Zigong: “You show reverence to Confucius, but how can he be considered as your superior?” Zigong said: “An exemplary person can reveal their wisdom with a single phrase and betray their ignorance with a single phrase. That is why they must be careful about what they say. Our master’s achievements cannot be equaled, just as there is no stairway to heaven that you can climb. If our master had been entrusted with running a country or a family estate, he would have lived up to the old adage: ‘If he helps them to stand, they will stand up; if he leads them, they will march; if he gives them peace, they will flock to him; if he mobilizes them to work, they will follow his call. In life, he is glorified; in death, he is mourned.’ How can his achievements ever be equaled?”

If only, if only, if only…

Life is full of opportunities that, with the benefit of hindsight, you could or should have taken. Do not waste time obsessing over them. The past is the past. Look to the future.


This article features a translation of Chapter 25 of Book 19 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 19 here.

(1) In his final appearance in the Analects, Zigong introduces the idea that if only Confucius had achieved high political office, he would have restored the golden age that supposedly existed when the Zhou dynasty was at its peak and brought peace and prosperity back to the nation. Rather than attaching blame to Confucius for his failure to accomplish this goal, Zigong is implying that the ruling class was too corrupt and incompetent to recognize the sage’s blazing talent.

(2) Chen Ziqin is believed to have been a follower of Confucius, though given his question to Zigong he does not seem to have been a particularly loyal one! Ziqin also features in 1.10 and 16.13.

I shot this image in the Confucius Temple in Shanghai.



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.