Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the spirits of the hills and rivers

Richard Brown
2 min readMay 5, 2019

Confucius said of Ran Yong: “Some might hesitate to choose the offspring of a plow ox for a sacrifice, but if a bullock has fine horns and sports a ruddy coat would the spirits of the hills and rivers reject it?”

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Open it up and learn more about what it has to say. The same principle applies to identifying talent. Just because someone didn’t go to a well-known university or doesn’t speak in a polished accent, that doesn’t mean that they lack the ability and drive to be successful. Indeed, the reverse is often the case, because such people are often more eager to prove themselves than ones who followed the conventional educational path.

It is easy to forget how radical Confucius was in advocating that men should be hired and promoted based on their talents rather than their family background and connections. Why indeed would spirits of the hills and rivers reject a bullock with fine horns and a ruddy coat even if its father was a nefarious scoundrel like Ran Yong’s supposedly was?

For all the high-minded talk about the benefits of diversity, even now we still tend to favor people with the “right” background and credentials when it comes to recruitment decisions. That’s why some wealthy parents are tempted to cross the line when it comes to getting the children admitted to the world’s most famous universities.

The next time you are planning to hire someone, why not give some of the less obvious candidates a closer look? Chances are you could unearth a special talent that the spirits of the hills and rivers would welcome with open arms.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu.



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.