Leadership Lessons from Confucius: when the way prevails in a state

Confucius said: “Shi Yu is truly a man of principle! When the way prevails in the state, he is as straight as an arrow; when the way doesn’t prevail in the state, he is as straight as an arrow. Qu Boyu is a true leader! When the way prevails in the state, he serves as an official; when the way doesn’t prevail in the state, he folds up his principles and hides them in his breast.”
子曰:「直哉史魚!邦有道如矢,邦無道如矢。君子哉蘧伯玉!邦有道則仕,邦無道則可卷而懷之。」

What to do when you realize that the new boss is taking the organization you work for down a questionable ethical path? Do you speak out against it no matter how much pressure you are put under to toe the line? Or do you quietly withdraw into the background until more favorable times return and your knowledge and expertise will be required to turn the ship in the right direction?

There are of course no easy answers to these questions. Only you can decide whether a principled or pragmatic approach will have the best chance of ensuring the most positive long-term impact for both yourself and the organization concerned.

Notes
This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) Shi Yu and Qu Boyu were senior officials in the state of Wei; the latter was first featured in 14.25. By comparing the behavior and character of these two men, Confucius is addressing the question of how a virtuous official should react when the state he serves is falling into decline as a result of the corruption and depravity of its ruler.

While he praises Shi Yu for remaining “as straight as an arrow” not matter how the ruler behaves, Confucius clearly favors Qu Boyu’s more flexible approach of withdrawing into the background until more promising conditions emerge. Why waste valuable time and energy — and potentially risk your life — by fighting a battle against an evil ruler that you have no chance of winning when you can conserve your strength to fight another day?

In practical terms, Confucius’s thinking certainly makes sense given the frequency with which political power changed hands during the tumultuous Spring and Autumn period he lived in. In ethical terms, however, the picture is much less clear. If even senior officials withdrew from the political stage when the ruler of a state got out of control, who else was left to oppose him or at least mitigate the effects of his actions? The answer was in many cases nobody, further accelerating the decline of the state and the suffering of its people.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery in Qufu.

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.