Leadership Lessons from Confucius: take some time away

Zizhang said: “In the Book of Documents it is written: ‘When Gaozong was mourning his father, he did not speak for three years.’ What does this mean?” Confucius said: “This did not apply only to Gaozong; all the ancients did the same. When a king died, all the officials gathered together and took their orders from the chief minister for three years.”

The world won’t come to an end if you take a vacation. Your office will be functioning normally when you return. Your team might even be pleased to see you return from it refreshed and full of life.

Perhaps you should take a vacation more often not just to recharge your batteries but theirs. As much as they appreciate your guidance, your team do enjoy the opportunity to show they can do their job just as well when you’re not around — or perhaps even better.


This article features a translation of Chapter 40 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) This is another testing question from the young follower Zizhang designed to corner Confucius. He certainly comes very close to achieving this goal with his probing into the practicality of the traditional three-year mourning period following the death of a parent. By Confucius’s time (and probably many centuries earlier) it was already honored more in breach than in actual implementation, not least because of the need for officials to pursue their careers and the common people to make a living. It didn’t help that the ritual was extremely rigorous, requiring the son to move away from the family home to a humble mourning shack, wear plain garments, eat simple fare, remain silent, and desist from earthly pleasures for a minimum of twenty-five months.

(2) Gaozong is an honorary title of the famous Shang dynasty king Wu Ding (武丁), who reigned from 1324–1264 BCE according to the traditional chronology. Inscriptions found on oracle bones unearthed at the ruins of his capital near present-day Anyang date his reign three quarters of a century later from 1250–1192 BCE. Gaozong’s strict observance of the mourning period is believed to have been particularly auspicious because it ushered in over fifty years of enlightened rule and steady expansion of Shang territory. Uniquely among Chinese rulers, Gaozong had no compunction about giving his wives high-level positions of real authority. His favorite Fu Hao was a military commander and high priestess, while another of them, Fu Jing, was a diviner who was also in charge of agricultural production.

I took this image at the Tomb of Confucius’ Parents in Qufu.



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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.