Leadership Lessons from Confucius: leaving it all behind

Zilu fell behind while traveling with Confucius. He met an old man who was carrying a basket hanging from his staff over his shoulder. Zilu asked him: “Have you seen my master?” The old man said: “You do not toil with your four limbs, and you cannot even distinguish between the five types of grain. Who is your master?” He planted his staff in the ground and started weeding. Zilu stood respectfully, his hands clasped in front of him. The old man invited him to stay with him overnight, killed a chicken and cooked some millet for him to eat, and introduced his two sons to him. The next day, Zilu resumed his journey and reported to Confucius. Confucius said: “The man you met is a recluse.” He sent Zilu back to see the old man, but when he reached his place Zilu found that the old man had gone. Zilu said: “It is wrong to withdraw from public life. The codes that govern the appropriate relationship between the old and young cannot be discarded. How can the appropriate relationship between ruler and subject be discarded? You cannot disrupt the most basic human relationships just to preserve your purity. An exemplary person takes office and performs the appropriate duties even if they already know that the way will not prevail.”

Your priorities change as you get older. So, too, do your professional obligations. If you feel the time has come to unplug from the constant grind of your working life, you should not feel any compunction about leaving it all behind. While some may criticize you for taking such a dramatic step, your true friends will wish you all the best.


This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 18 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 18 here.

(1) This is the third of three passages in which a recluse suggest that it is time for Confucius and his followers to give up the pursuit of high political office. Zilu’s riposte to the old man’s criticism is far too long and convoluted to ring true and appears to have been penned by an unknown scribe. It is not even clear who Zilu is delivering it to because in the previous section the old man had already disappeared. Most scholars suggest it was given to the old man’s two sons.

(2) Zilu (if indeed it is he) is arguing that the old man showed his recognition of the traditional relationship between an elder and a younger person by inviting Zilu to spend the night at his home after Zilu had shown him the appropriate respect by clasping his hands in front of him. By the same token, therefore, the old man has the obligation to serve the state because it is an integral part of the proper relationship between a subject and ruler.

(3) This is the final appearance that Zilu, perhaps Confucius’s most faithful follower and friend, makes in the Analects.

I shot this image in a hillside temple on the Four Beasts near to 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.