Leadership Lessons from Confucius: unearthing hidden talent
Shun ruled his empire with only five ministers. King Wu of Zhou said: “I have ten able ministers to keep everything in order.” Confucius said: “Talented people are hard to find: are they not? The times of Yao and Shun were said to be rich in talent, but King Wu was only able to find nine such men because one of his ministers was a woman. Although the Zhou controlled over two-thirds of the empire, it still served the Shang. You can truly say that the virtue of the Zhou was supreme.”
Is it true that talented people are hard to find? It can be tempting to think so when you read about skills shortages in hot new fields like data science and hear your colleagues complain about how tough it is to hire qualified staff.
Perhaps one of the reasons is that you’re not looking hard enough within your own organization to identify and nurture promising talent. It can of course be time-consuming and expensive to do this, but a strategy of promoting from within can significantly boost the loyalty and commitment of staff because they see that they have a much better chance of being rewarded for good performance. Why take the risk of bringing in an unknown quantity from outside when you can provide the opportunity to someone you know who is familiar with the culture and ethos of the organization?
Another factor to consider is the recruitment process in your organization. Does the screening component exclude potential candidates before you even get the chance to interview them because they don’t quite tick all the required boxes? Perhaps it’s time to review the criteria you set so that you have a much broader well of talent to draw from. Even if a candidate doesn’t have all the qualifications and experience you’re demanding, they might very well be able to add that undefinable quality to your team that you were looking for in the first place but were unable to articulate.
This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.
(1) The female minister of King Wu of Zhou that Confucius refers to was the king’s wife. This is another example of the sage’s less than enlightened attitude towards women.
(2) King Wu (周武王) founded the Zhou dynasty (周朝) after defeating the last Shang dynasty (商朝) king Zhouxin (紂辛) in the battle of Muye (牧野之戰) in about 1046 BCE. Confucius is praising him for allowing the Shang to remain in existence even while occupying most of its territory. By accomplishing this balancing act, the king was able to confer legitimacy on his new regime by showing respect for the most sacred traditions of the past while offering a vision of a more prosperous and stable future under his virtuous guidance.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.