Leadership Lessons from Confucius: special teaching
Chen Gang asked Confucius’s son Boyu: “Has your father given you any special teaching?” Boyu replied: “No, he has not. Once, when he was standing on his own and I was hurrying across the courtyard, he asked me: ‘Have you studied the Book of Songs?’ I replied: ‘Not yet.’ He said: ‘If you do not study the Book of Songs, you will not be able to speak effectively.’ I retired and studied the Book of Songs. On another day, when he was again standing on his own and I was hurrying across the courtyard, he asked me: ‘Have you studied ritual?’ I replied: ‘Not yet.’ He said: ‘If you do not study ritual, you will not be able to take your place in society.’ I retired and studied ritual. These are the two lessons I received from him.” Chen Gang left delighted and said: “I asked one thing and learned three. I learned about the Book of Songs, I learned about ritual, and I learned how an exemplary person keeps the appropriate distance from their son.”
There is no better way of destroying morale than showing favoritism towards a member of your team. Not only is it unfair on everyone else; it also creates unnecessary jealousy and rivalry. No matter how hard you try to hide your bias, people will notice.
This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.
(1) This is the second appearance in the Analects of Confucius’s son Boyu, or Kong Li (孔鲤) as he is more formally known. Boyu died before his father at the age of fifty in 480 BCE. As this passage shows, the relationship between Confucius and his son was a distant one. In 11.8, Confucius recounts how he refused to give Boyu an elaborate funeral and conducted the ceremony strictly according to the dictates of ritual.
(2) Chen Gang is commonly believed to be the follower Ziqin (子禽).
(3) Confucius regarded the study of the Book of Songs as the essential foundation of a young person’s education. In 17.9, for example, he says that the text “can inspire your imagination, provide a vehicle for self-contemplation, make you more sociable, and voice a complaint more effectively.” It was the custom at court for ministers and officials to cite lines from the text to emphasize their point by making appropriate allusions to similar incidents in the past. In the same way, he saw the study and practice of ritual as essential for modeling appropriate behavior.
I took this image at Alishan in central Taiwan.