Leadership Lessons from Confucius: sharp retorts and derisive comments

Zigong said: “Guan Zhong wasn’t a good person, was he? After Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, he not only chose to live but also served as the duke’s chief minister.” Confucius said: “By serving as Duke Huan’s chief minister, Guan Zhong imposed his authority over all the states and brought order to the world; the people still reap the benefits of his actions until this day. Without Guan Zhong, we would still be wearing our hair loose and folding our robes on the wrong side. Or would you prefer it if he had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their petty fidelity and died with nobody knowing about it?”

子貢曰:「管仲非仁者與?桓公殺公子糾,不能死,又相之。」子曰:「管仲相桓公,霸諸侯,一匡天下,民到于今受其賜。微管仲,吾其被髮左衽矣!豈若匹夫匹婦之為諒也,自經於溝瀆,而莫之知也!」

No matter how many times you have been asked the same question, there is no need to explode when someone raises it yet again. Sharp retorts and derisive comments may make you feel good at the time, but they add nothing to the conversation. At best they will only serve to discourage open discussion and debate among your staff and at worst they could end up destroying your status and career.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 17 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Confucius doesn’t even bother to attempt to hide his disdain for foreigners and the ignorant masses with his derisive comments about them in this passage. When he says, “we would still be wearing our hair loose and folding our robes on the wrong side,” he is referring to Guan Zhong’s success in uniting the feuding states of the kingdom of Zhou to fight off the threat of invasion from the Yi and Di tribes. When he asks whether Zigong would prefer it if Guan Zhong “had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their petty fidelity” he is making light of all-too-common tragedies of the poor being driven to suicide by the loss of their spouses, family members, and whatever meager possessions they may have owned. Not a good look, to put it mildly.

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting as regent to his nephew, the young King Cheng.

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.