Leadership Lessons from Confucius: know your role
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” The duke said: “Excellent! If lords are not lords, ministers are not ministers, fathers are not fathers, and sons are not sons, would I be able to eat even if I had food?”
It’s not enough simply to know your role. You also have to live up to the professional and ethical responsibilities that it encompasses. As a CEO, for example, your role involves much more than hitting the right financial numbers; building up a strong corporate culture that promotes honesty and openness is equally, if not more, important. That means, of course, becoming a powerful role model who sets the right example for everyone to follow through your words and actions. While you may not realize it at first, failure to do that will send your organization sliding down a slippery slope that will be difficult to escape from.
This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) It is not clear when this conversation between Confucius and Duke Jing of Qi took place. Many sources suggest that Confucius left his home state of Lu in 517 BCE at the age of thirty-five after its ruler Duke Zhao was ousted from the throne and joined him in the state of Qi. Qi was in a similar state of chaos as Lu, with its ailing ruler Duke Jing unable to determine his successor because he had lost his power to his chief minister Chen Qi. Although the duke appears to enthusiastically accept Confucius’s advice that everyone in society should carry out their duties correctly and treat each other in accordance with their respective status, he didn’t have either the power or the will to act on it and Chen Qi and his family ultimately took control of the state.
Annping Chin argues in her book The Authentic Confucius that Confucius visited Qi twelve years later in around 505 BCE to escape the attentions of the thuggish Yang Hu, who was pushing the sage to join his efforts to take power in Lu. Chin suggests that at the age of thirty-five Confucius was still not a major political figure and would not have had enough of a reputation to secure an audience with the duke. Given that Duke Jing eventually decided to rescind his offer of employment because, or so he claims in 18.3, he felt he was too old take on a man like Confucius, the latter date seems like a reasonable possibility. 505 BCE would also coincide more closely with the waning of the influence of the duke’s great chief minister, Yan Ying, who died in 500 BCE, and the duke’s subsequent inability to handle the succession crisis that roiled the court.
(2) Confucius explores this issue of the need for people to match their behavior with the responsibilities of their role in society more deeply in 13.13 when he tells Zilu that his first priority in government would be to “rectify the names” (必也正名乎) because “when the names are not correct, the language is not in accordance with the truth of things” (名不正，則言不順).