Leadership Lessons from Confucius: overcoming your weaknesses

Yuan Xian asked about shamefulness. Confucius said: “Caring only about your official salary no matter whether good or bad government prevails in the state. That is shamefulness.” “If you overcome contentiousness, arrogance, bitterness, and greed can you be said to have achieved true goodness?” Confucius said: “You can be said to have achieved something difficult; but I don’t know whether it’s true goodness.”

Becoming a good leader involves much more than overcoming your weaknesses and character defects — no matter how egregious they might be. It also means harnessing your strengths and virtues in order to make a greater contribution to your family, organization, and society. The more you deny yourself the experience of engaging with your emotions and desires, the less able you are to understand and empathize with other people. By stepping away from the daily fray and basking in self-righteousness, you risk losing touch with reality and minimizing the positive impact that you would otherwise have on everybody.

This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) We first encountered Yuan Xian in 6.5. In that encounter, Confucius gently rebuked Yuan for his excessive fastidiousness in refusing to take a salary after being hired as his steward. In this passage, Confucius expands on this theme by remarking that his follower needed to do more than simply address his flaws if he wanted to achieve goodness. This advice presumably fell on deaf ears, for after Confucius’s death Yuan went on to live in extreme poverty as a recluse because of his refusal to serve as official for what he saw as the corrupt ruling class of his day.

I took the top image at the Zhusi Academy in Qufu. Confucius is said to have taught his students here after returning to Lu from exile in around 483 BCE, as well as compiling or editing the Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Ritual, Book of Music, and Book of Changes.




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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