Leadership Lessons from Confucius: military formations and ritual vessels

Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military formations. Confucius replied: “Although I have experience in handling ritual vessels, I have never studied military matters.” He left the next day.

No matter how attractive a job offer may appear to be on the surface, always be sure to dig deep in the interview to make sure that the position is the right fit for you. There is always the danger that the specifications provided to you by the company are not completely in sync with the needs or agenda of the person who is hiring you.

Better to find out that the post requires someone with expertise in military formations rather than handling ritual vessels before you make the move than after it. The consequences of learning too late that the role was not quite what it was made out to be could be disastrous.

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) Wei was the first state Confucius went to after leaving Lu in 496 BCE. He was very keen to find a high-level position in the government, going as far as to risk a scandal by attending a private audience with Duke Ling’s notorious consort Nanzi.

When Confucius did finally manage to secure a meeting with Duke Ling himself, it did not take him long to realize that the duke was only interested in hiring him to launch a military campaign against the state of Jin to capture his son Kuaikui, who had fled there after a failed attempt to assassinate Nanzi. Not wishing to get involved in such a sordid family affair, Confucius felt he had no choice but to leave the state of Wei for fresh pastures.

This proved to be a costly decision because Confucius ended up spending fourteen years on the road (including at least one return visit to Wei) without ever finding the senior official job he craved. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that he would have lasted long as a minister amid the vicious internal power struggles that were afflicting Wei as the duke approached his death.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery in Qufu.




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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