Leadership Lessons from Confucius: toxic behaviors

Richard Brown
2 min readAug 6, 2022

Zigong said: “Does an exemplary person have things that they loathe?” Confucius said: “Yes. They loathe those who point out what is loathsome in others. They loathe those in inferior positions who slander their superiors. They loathe those whose courage is not tempered by ritual. They loathe those who are impulsive and stubborn.” Confucius continued. “Do you have things that you loathe?” “I loathe those who pretend to be learned by plagiarizing. I loathe those who pretend to be brave by acting arrogant. I loathe those who pretend to be frank by being malicious.”
子貢曰:「君子亦有惡乎?」子曰:「有惡。惡稱人之惡者,惡居下流而訕上者,惡勇而無禮者,惡果敢而窒者。」曰:「賜也亦有惡乎?」「惡徼以為知者,惡不孫以為勇者,惡訐以為直者。」

Building a healthy organizational culture is a two-sided process. On the one hand, you need to define and promote positive behaviors that enhance communication, cooperation, and creativity among everyone that works there. On the other, you need to make it very clear that you will not tolerate toxic behaviors that undermine the confidence and morale of your staff even, indeed especially, if it means letting go of your highest performers.

There is nothing more dangerous to long-term growth than backstabbers who stir the pot with their unwarranted criticism of others or bullies who mask their ignorance and weakness by pretending to be what they are not. If you show any signs of excusing these kinds of behaviors, all the fine words and inspirational values in your mission statements and stakeholder communications will be torn into tiny scraps of paper lying forgotten at the bottom of a rubbish bin.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.

(1) Confucius is pointing out in this passage that there is a duality in acting an exemplary person. It does not just mean acting in a virtuous manner; it also requires opposing negative and immoral behaviors.

I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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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.