Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the five virtues and four vices

Richard Brown
3 min readDec 18, 2022

Zizhang asked Confucius: “What qualities must you have in order to be fit to govern?” Confucius said: “If you cultivate the five virtues and cast out the four vices you are fit to govern.”

Zizhang asked: “What are the five virtues?” Confucius said: “An exemplary person is generous without having to spend anything; they inspire people to work hard without complaining; they are ambitious without being greedy; they are confident without being arrogant; they are imposing without being frightening.”

Zizhang said: “How can you be ‘generous without having to spend anything’?” Confucius said: “If you let the people take advantage of what is beneficial for them, are you not being generous without having to spend anything? If you assign the people to work on tasks that are reasonable, who will complain? If your ambition is to be consummate in your conduct and you accomplish it, how can you be greedy? If an exemplary person treats everyone equally no matter whether they are many or few or humble or great, they are confident without being arrogant. If an exemplary person wears their robe and cap correctly, their gaze is straight, and they carry themself with a dignified air that inspires the people’s awe, they are imposing but not frightening.”

Zizhang said: “What are the four vices?” Confucius said: “If you execute people without attempting to reform them, you are being cruel; if you carry out an inspection of a public works project without giving a prior warning, you are being tyrannical; if you expect the immediate completion of a project after being slow to approve it, you are acting like a thief; if you are tight-fisted in paying people what is rightfully theirs, you are being officious.”

How can you expect the people below them to be good if he behaves badly himself? How can he expect the people to respond enthusiastically if he makes unreasonable demands on them and refuses to pay them their rightful due? To find out the answers to these questions, the leader has to look deep inside himself first rather than seek to blame others.

How can you expect your team members to act in the right way if you are prepared to skirt ethical boundaries when it suits you? How can you expect them to respond enthusiastically if you make unreasonable demands on them and refuse to pay them their rightful due? Before rushing to criticize others for failing to meet your expectations, take a deep look inside yourself to make sure that you are living up to them yourself.

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 20 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 20 here.

(1) This passage features another reprise of a common theme of Confucius’s teachings: namely, that people in power have a responsibility to treat the common people in the same way that they would expect to be treated.

(2) This is the final appearance of the follower Zizhang in the Analects.



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.