Leadership Lessons from Confucius: when times are tough
Duke Ai asked Youzi: “In years of famine when I don’t make enough to cover my expenses, what should I do?” Youzi replied: “Why not set the tax at ten percent?” Duke Ai said: “Even twenty percent wouldn’t be sufficient to meet my needs; how could I manage with ten percent?” Youzi replied: “If the people have enough to support themselves, how could their lord not have enough to meet his needs? If the people do not have enough to support themselves, how could their lord have enough to meet his needs?”
When times are tough, show you have confidence in your people by increasing their freedom to be more creative. Even if it means that you have to take a short-term hit, the long-term rewards for you and everyone you work with will be rich.
This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) Duke Ai was the hereditary ruler of Confucius’s home state of Lu from around 494 to 467 BCE. His less-than-glorious rein was riven by bitter power struggles against the Three Families and years of famine, ending in humiliating exile. No wonder his posthumous name literally means Duke Sadness!
(2) A ten percent tax was traditionally levied on agricultural production until this rate was doubled by Duke Xuan of Lu in 593 BCE and unsurprisingly didn’t go back down again. Lu was hit by a massive famine caused by successive plagues of locusts in 484 and 483 BCE, causing Duke Ai to look to Youzi for advice on how to cover his expenses.
(3) Youzi briefly succeeded Confucius as the leader of the original band of followers, mainly, it seems, because he bore a remarkable physical resemblance to the sage. However, when his talents came nowhere near to matching those of the Confucius, he was quickly abandoned by them. Still, Youzi’s advice to the duke to reduce the burden on the farmers in order to promote their welfare and boost production and hence tax revenues shows that he had a sound economic head on his shoulders. Perhaps his fellow followers underestimated him. This is the final appearance of Youzi in the Analects.