Leadership Lessons from Confucius: promote the upright
Fan Chi asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Love others.” He then asked about wisdom. Confucius said: “Know others.” Fan Chi didn’t understand. Confucius said: “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.” Fan Chi left. When he met Zixia he asked: “A short while ago when I saw Confucius I asked him about wisdom. He said: ‘Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.’ What does this mean?” Zixia said: “These are rich words indeed! When Shun ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Gao Yao and those without goodness went away. When Tang ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Yi Yin and those without goodness went away.”
One of the most important attributes of a leader is to be an excellent judge of character. Without having the right people in place, it’s impossible to build a strong and vibrant culture in your organization. Even the most beautifully crafted vision and values statements won’t have a cat in hell’s chance of being implemented if you if there’s nobody on the ground to embody them. Be very careful in how you hire and develop people to make sure you “promote the upright and place them above the crooked.”
This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) For similar advice to a ruler about the necessity of putting upright officials in important positions see 2.19.
(2) Shun (舜) was one of the legendary sage kings that ruled China in the dawn of its history during the 23rd or 22nd centuries BCE. As such, he was believed to have been chosen for the role based on his virtue rather than his family ties and followed the same principle in appointing only the most upright officials. In Confucius’s time, a hereditary system was employed, with the result that rulers preferred to hire officials from the nobility and thus excluded many people with higher levels of talent and morality.
(3) Gao Yao (皋陶) was a member of Shun’s court and was said to have been responsible for justice and music. He was regarded as the God of Justice in ancient China.
(4.) Tang (湯) was the founder of the Shang dynasty and reigned as its first king from 1675–1646 BCE. He is also known as Cheng Tang (成湯).
(5) Yi Yin (伊尹) was Tang’s principal aide and prime minister. He helped Tang overthrow the Xia dynasty and establish the Shang dynasty.