Leadership Lessons from Confucius: what should I do?

Confucius said: “I can do nothing for people who do not ask themselves ‘What should I do? What should I do?’”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” as the old saying goes. Once you have given someone the opportunity to prove themselves and they have shown no interest in pursuing it, do not waste time trying to convince them to take another shot at it.

There are plenty of others who would welcome the chance to show you what they can do. They are the ones you should be focusing your attention on. Whatever they may lack in terms of knowledge and experience, they will more than make up for with their willingness to learn and enthusiasm.

This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) Even though Confucius says in 7.7 that he never refused to teach anyone who has asked him to, even if they were too poor to offer no more than a token offering of a bundle of dried meat for their tuition, he wasn’t prepared to let them stick around if they didn’t show the appropriate aptitude and enthusiasm for their studies. In 7.8, he adds: “I instruct only the passionate. I enlighten only the fervent. If a student cannot return with the other three corners of the square after I have shown them the first one, I will not repeat the lesson.”

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery 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.