Distrust in Dependence: The Ancient Challenge of Superior-Subordinate Relations


Violina P. Rindova and William H. Starbuck, New York University

Published in T. A. R. Clark (ed.), Advancements in Organization Behaviour: Essays in Honour of Derek Pugh; Dartmouth, 1997.



In 1993, Derek Pugh asked me to edit readings on premodern management thought, explaining that this meant writings from before 1880. I agreed to attempt this, not as an expert in premodern thought, but to learn about it.

A few weeks of reflection brought me to wondering about very ancient management practices -- long before Niccolò Machiavelli or Robert Owen. I had seen descriptions of ancient practices only in Claude George's The History of Management Thought (1968) - which was so concise that it mainly roused my curiosity.

I asked the students in a doctoral seminar to investigate ancient management practices. Each student was to dig out evidence about actual management practices in one society. To keep the students from sliding too easily into well-known works and to push them toward serious library research, I told them to limit their search to times before the year 0 CE.

Violina, my co-author of this chapter, looked at ancient China. Other students studied Greece, India, and Rome. I investigated Egypt and Mesopotamia. This chapter reports some findings about China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, the regions with the oldest surviving records.

William Starbuck


Among the oldest records that offer practical advice for a manager are Mesopotamian stone tablets engraved with a story of a flood (Footnote 1). Scholars say the story of Noah, written around 1000 BCE, was a Judaic adaptation of this Mesopotamian story. Although the oldest substantial copy was composed around 1635 BCE, fragments of tablets suggest that the story probably goes back to at least 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia (Footnote 2).

In Mesopotamia, the man who built a boat was named Atrahasis, Ziusudra, or Utnapishtim. He lived in a city named Shuruppak (now called Fara) on the Euphrates river.

Atrahasis had to contend with quite a few gods: The most powerful god, Enlil, led the others in deciding to teach humanity a lesson by drowning everyone in Shuruppak. They chose Shuruppak because it was the "most fortunate of cities, favored by the gods." Although the gods agreed to keep the forthcoming flood secret, two of them broke this pact. Shamash, god of justice and truth, told Atrahasis that an evening shower would foretell the flood. Enki or Ea, god of wisdom who delighted in cunning tricks, saved Atrahasis's life by urging him to build a boat.

Atrahasis's boat was to be so massive that a single family could not build it, and Atrahasis himself had no ship-building experience. How could he induce others to help him build a massive boat? Who would believe a man who claimed that the gods intended to drown everyone? If they did believe him, would they not demand passage in his boat?

Atrahasis asked the god Enki how to handle this problem. "I hear what you say, and I will do it in praise of you. But, I will need to explain my actions. What should I tell others? What should I tell the city, the people and their leaders?" Enki advised Atrahasis to deceive them. He should explain that he had to leave Shuruppak because it is dedicated to Enlil, and Atrahasis' own god, Enki, is quarreling with Enlil. "Since Shuruppak is the city of Enlil, you can no longer live in the city and you can no longer gaze on the land, which Enlil rules. You must find another place to live and another god to protect you. You have therefore decided to leave Shuruppak and to seek another home. Tell them your patron will be Enki, the god who rules the deep waters, so you will dwell upon the deep waters with Enki."

Enki told Atrahasis to tell the truth, but to do so using metaphors that hearers would misunderstand. Atrahasis should say, "As for Shuruppak, he [Enlil, but the ambiguous antecedent allows hearers to substitute Enki] will make abundance rain down on the fortunate city: There will be a flood of bounty. The city will teem with heaven's profusion. The people will see birds and fishes unheard-of in song or story. When the new day dawns, he will pour down loaves of fresh bread and showers of wheat. He will bring a surfeit of everything, yes, more than enough. These are the things to tell the people and their leaders."

However, for Sumerians, bread was a metaphor for darkness and wheat a metaphor for misfortune. Thus, Atrahasis's promise had a metaphorical meaning that promised doom: 'When the new day dawns, he will pour down renewed darkness and showers of misfortune.' Thus, the god Enki advised Atrahasis, in his supervisory role, to elicit work by deceiving the workers.

Atrahasis also rewarded his doomed helpers generously. "As for the people who came to help with the work, each day was like a New Year's festival: I slaughtered bullocks for their feasting; everyday I slaughtered sheep. To drink, I gave the workers ale and beer, oil and wine aplenty, as if they came from a flowing river." When he and his family were aboard the boat and with the storm rising, Atrahasis made his last payment: "To Puzur-Amuru, the shipbuilder who, outside, caulked up the hatch with pitch, I gave my house with all its contents."

Thus, what may be the oldest surviving advice about management practices concerns leaders' deceptions of followers. Tension-filled, distrustful relations between leaders and followers pervade the ancient texts. This chapter reviews these common issues and people's responses to them. The issues encompass: (a) how much leaders and followers should trust each other and speak forthrightly to each other, (b) how leaders manipulate followers and followers manipulate leaders, (c) how much followers respect leaders and leaders respect followers, (d) whether status differences are just, and (e) when leaders act appropriately.

The chapter draws on documents from regions with the oldest surviving documents - Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. Although similar issues doubtless arose in many regions, only these offer records from before 1000 BCE.

We do not compare these regions because records are fragmentary and biased. To justify comparisons, one would need comparable information from all three regions. But, invasions and political upheavals created waves of mass destruction that erased disapproved documents. There is no reason to believe this historical editing operated similarly in these regions.


Through waves of migration and invasion, Mesopotamia was home to several cultures and several languages. Invasions often involved wholesale destruction of written records. Yet quite a bit of writing survives and it gives some of the most reliable evidence about ancient practices because people chiseled cuneiform into rock or baked it into clay. Elsewhere, where words were recorded on papyrus or skins or paper, decaying documents had to be copied. Works were copied only if aristocrats approved of and valued them. Copying introduced errors, and some scribes modernized works they were reproducing. Thus, Mesopotamian documents offer better insights into attitudes of ordinary people, unfiltered by the editing of their rulers.

The records include contracts, bills of sale, grants by rulers, inventory records and letters to and from rulers. These discuss all sorts of administrative details, from assignments of shepherds, through astronomical observations, to police investigations. However, scholars have found little writing about Mesopotamian management techniques, organization design, or strategy.

How Ordinary People Viewed Leaders

The more interesting survivors include proverbs and sayings used by ordinary people. These sayings date to at least 2000-1000 BCE and they might be much older. They reveal the ambivalence with which followers regard their leaders (Footnote 3). Some assert the necessity of leadership:

Workers without a supervisor are a canal without someone to regulate it.

Workers without a supervisor are a field without a farmer.

People without a ruler are sheep without a shepherd.

Others characterize leadership as requiring special talents or embodying special powers:

A driver of oxen should not try to be a supervisor.

To improve government, Shamash [the god of justice and truth] will speak to a ruler even if the ruler is an ignoramus.

Some sayings distinguish between rulers and administrators:

Acknowledge a lord, acknowledge a ruler, but respect an administrator.

Giving is the act of a ruler; doing a favor the act of an administrator.

And still other sayings speak cynically of rulers' doubtful value:

There are people who support spouses; there are people who support children. Rulers are people who do not even support themselves.

Protests against a Ruler's Actions

In a society where rulers could inflict harsh punishment for disobedience or disrespect, protest could be dangerous. A protester had to find a way to tell a ruler that he had erred and yet avoid personal responsibility for this judgment.

One document dating to 1000-700 BCE seems to protest transgressions by an unnamed ruler against residents of three cities -- Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon (Footnote 4). However, instead of accusing a named ruler directly of having taken or threatening to take certain actions, the document offers predictions about what would happen if an unnamed ruler would take certain actions. The actions, however, are so specific that the author was likely speaking of specific acts by a specific ruler. For example,

If a ruler denies due process to a citizen of Sippar but grants it to a foreigner, Shamash, judge of heaven and earth, will impose an alien form of due process on the state and neither nobles nor judges will have respect for due process.

If citizens of Nippur come to the ruler for justice, and the ruler accepts the customary remuneration but denies them due process, Enlil, lord of the world, will bring a foreign enemy to decimate the ruler's army and the army's commanders and officers will prowl the streets like vagabonds.

If a ruler imposes fines on citizens of Babylon that the ruler usurps as the ruler's own property, or if the ruler hears a plea from Babylonians but dismisses it as trivial, Marduk, lord of heaven and earth, will place the ruler's enemies over the ruler and give the ruler's possessions and property to these foes.

In the original language, the writing style imitated one that Mesopotamians used when describing omens of future events. Thus, the document portrays the ruler's transgressions as omens foretelling dire consequences, mainly consequences for the ruler himself but also for the society. The dire consequences are carried out by the populace, gods or foreign invaders (who may have been seen as instruments of the gods). To find this description persuasive, a ruler would have to have believed that Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon had strong support from gods. In turn, the document had to emphasize high-minded issues that gods would support.

If a ruler does not listen to the nobles, the ruler's lifetime will be cut short.

If a ruler listens to a scoundrel, the state's morality will change.

If a ruler attempts clever deception, the great gods together will harass the ruler endlessly for the sake of justice.


Several surviving Egyptian documents are Instructions that were intended to transmit experience from one generation to another. Typically, an Instruction represented itself as having been written by a father for his sons, but they actually had much wider readership as they served as texts in schools.

It appears that Egyptians drew weak distinctions between work and other aspects of life. Their Instructions mix advice on many topics, and none focuses exclusively on management. However, the Instruction of Ptahhotep may be the oldest surviving text on organizational behavior (Footnote 5).

Ptahhotep was Mayor of the Capital and Vizier to King Isesi around 2380-2340 BCE. The Vizier was Egypt's highest appointed official, second only to the king. The Instruction states that it is offering advice to Ptahhotep's son. However, scholars debate whether Ptahhotep himself composed the Instruction because the oldest surviving copy has the writing style of works created about 200 years after Ptahhotep died. Works from Ptahhotep's day were shorter and more terse, and they used more archaic language. Surviving copies may be "expanded and revised editions," or the work's attribution to Ptahhotep may have been a literary device to add the significance of great age. Since Egyptian schools were still using Ptahhotep's Instruction as a text around 1500 BCE, it may have been studied for 900 years.

Ptahhotep's Instruction covers such diverse topics as "do not let your concubine starve," "beware of greed," "do not steal from your neighbors," and reasons children should listen to their fathers. Yet, the Instruction mainly teaches how to survive and succeed in the Egyptian social system. Its advice sometimes seems more insightful and pragmatic than advice in modern textbooks!

Being a superior

The Instruction recognizes that rulers need support of the populace and that superiors need support of their subordinates. It advises superiors to act virtuously, modestly, and with awareness of human needs. It advocates correct behavior in terms of how people will react, not in terms of demands made by gods. There is no sign that gods intervene in human affairs in order to ensure social justice.

4. If you run into opposition from subordinates who are not your equal, show temperance in proportion to your opponents' weakness. If you leave such opponents alone they may rebut themselves. Do not challenge them to make yourself feel better or to vent your feelings. Contemptible is one who bullies uninformed subordinates. When other people will follow your advice, you will subdue your opponents through the judgment of others.

14. When among the people, attract supporters by earning their trust. Trustworthy persons speak in ways that do not distort what they think. Their conduct makes them superiors and owners of property. . . .

17. If you are a superior, listen kindly when people make petitions to you. Do not interrupt petitioners until they have unburdened themselves and said what they came to say. Those who think they have suffered wrongs want to vent their feelings more than they want to win their cases. If you interrupt a petition, people will think you rejected it. You cannot grant every plea, but a good hearing soothes the heart.

25. If you hold an important position, earn respect through knowledge and through gentleness of speech. Do not issue commands unless they fit the business at hand. A superior who chafes gets into trouble. Do not act haughty lest you be humiliated. Do not keep silence, but careful not to offend. When you run into someone who is fuming, avert your face, control yourself, and the flames of anger will sweep past and be gone. . . .

30. If you become important after having been lowly, or gain wealth after having been poor, do not boast of your attainments and do not rely on your wealth. These came to you as gifts from the gods. Otherwise, you might look unworthy in comparison with others who have had similar success.

Being a subordinate

Ptahhotep's Instruction assumes a sharply hierarchical society, and it implies that changes in social status and wealth lie outside the control of normal people, being determined instead by fate, gods, or the King. Because superiors exercised great power over their subordinates, and could even inflict death, subordinates had to behave carefully. The Instruction reminds subordinates of their dependency, and urges them to behave discreetly and loyally.

7. If you depend on an important person for largess, accept what your superior offers you. Focus on your responsibilities and do not covet a superior's; to annoy a superior tempts fate. Do not offer advice to a superior until asked for it, for you might displease the superior; but answer when a superior asks your advice, for your superior will then welcome it. When superiors are distributing rewards, they can do as they wish. Superiors reward those they favor, and it is fate that determines these decisions. Thus, the gods guide your welfare, and only a fool would complain about it.

15. State your business candidly. When your superior asks you to speak, say plainly what you know and do not know. A subordinate who reports fully and impartially will not find it hard to report and will not be asked "How do you know such things?" What if a superior does challenge a subordinate's report? The subordinate should remain silent after saying merely "I have told all I know."

26. Do not oppose the actions of important superiors; do not vex the hearts of the burdened. Opposition will rouse their ill-will, whereas support draws their love. Your superiors are your providers, along with the gods, and what they desire should take place. Pacify superiors when they storm in anger. Just as opposition engenders ill-will, support nurtures love.

27. Tell an important superior what is useful; help your superior to win acceptance by other people. This will also benefit you, because your livelihood depends on your superior's success, which clothes your back, and your superior's help protects you. When your superior receives a promotion, your own desire for rank progresses toward fulfillment, as your superior gives you a helping hand. Thus, love will grow stronger among those who love you; it is goodwill that wants to listen.

31. Bow to the one who is over you, your superior who represents the King. In this way, you will preserve your household and earn your pay. Pitiful is one who opposes a superior, for you live only as long as your superior is indulgent. Showing respect does you no harm.

Keeping a Cool Head

Around 1500 BCE, Egyptians began to refer to their King as Pharaoh, and their schools replaced Ptahhotep's Instruction with a similar one composed by Amenemope. Amenemope was, Pharaoh's Superintendent of Cereals, and he addressed his Instruction to his son, explaining that someone who followed its advice would be worthy to serve as an aide to Pharaoh (Footnote 6).

Amenemope strongly advocated rational behavior. He emphasized the desirability of being "cool-headed" rather than "hot-headed." Cool-headed seems to denote a composite of considerate, slow to anger, temperate, socially concerned, thoughtful of others, and honest; whereas hot-headed appears to mean a composite of impetuous, quick to anger, rude, selfish, dishonest, and treacherous. Amenemope expected gods to punish hot-headed behavior.

3. Do not quarrel with hot-headed people, or provoke them with words. Act cautiously when dealing with an adversary, and bend to an attacker. Sleep on a response before speaking, for turmoil spreads like fire in hay. Control yourself around hot-headed people, when they appear. If you leave them alone, the gods will answer them.

9. Do not associate with the hot-headed people or consult them.

Control your tongue when answering your superiors, and be careful not to malign them. Beware that they may try to entrap you, so be not too free in your replies. Before replying to superiors, discuss the replies with people of your own station, and take care not to speak thoughtlessly. . . .

12. Do not covet the property of a superior -- do not fill your mouth extravagantly with too much food.

If a superior assigns you to manage property, respect the superior's interest, and yours will prosper too. Do not deal with the dishonest people, or associate with disloyal coworkers. If you are sent to transport grain, account for it correctly. People caught in dishonest transactions will never be employed again.

24. Do not listen to the words of your superior indoors and then repeat them outside. To have a clear conscience, do not air your opinions outside the office. A person's conscience is the gods' pointer to right and wrong, so heed it. An aide to an official should be nameless.

The Upside and Downside of Kingship

Whereas Ptahhotep framed proper actions by superiors in terms of how people would react, another Instruction from before 2000 BCE placed more emphasis on expectations set by gods. Composed around 2150-2050 BCE, this Instruction conveys advice from an unnamed king to his son, Merikare (Footnote 7).

Kings saw their worlds quite differently from their subordinates. Merikare's father saw himself as having gods' support: "The ruler of [our kingdom] is wise. The ruler cannot act stupidly: The ruler receives advice from an entourage; the ruler is wise from birth; and the gods have chosen the ruler over millions of people." At the same time, he admitted that he needed support from the gods, nobles, and populace. He placed emphasis on remaining in control, a complex task that requires balance between contrary needs. He indicated this balance by shifting back and forth between harshness and kindness, idealism and pragmatism, and eliciting support from different constituents.

Dissatisfied loudmouths make trouble. Suppress them, kill them, erase their names, destroy their kinsfolk, suppress the memory of them and their supporters who love them. Hot-headed rebels incite the citizens and divide the younger people into factions. If you find citizens adhering to them and their movements have grown beyond your control, accuse them publicly and suppress them. . . . Bend the multitude to your will and cool its hot heads.

Be lenient when you intercede. . . . Justify your acts ethically so that people will say that you punish in proportion to the crime. . . . A contented citizenry is a ruler's heaven, whereas the curses of the angry are harmful.

Be skillful in speech, that you may prevail. The tongue is a ruler's sword, and speaking is more powerful than fighting. No one can defeat a clever person through physical means. A wise ruler is a school for the nobles, and those who see the ruler's wisdom do not rebel.

Do not be cruel; kindness is good. Build a lasting monument in the citizens' love for you. Benefit the citizens; improve the nation. Then will the citizens praise the gods for your deeds and pray for your health.

Respect the nobles and keep your citizens safe. Strengthen your borders and your patrols in the disputed land beyond the border. It is an investment in the future, because enemies respect the foresighted whereas they attack the trusting. Do not go after your neighbors' lands; one who covets what others possess is a fool. Let your neighbors come to you because of your excellence as a ruler.

Make your nobles very wealthy so that they may carry out your laws. The rich will not be self-serving, for wealthy people do not crave more. The poor, on the other hand, may not speak truly: Those who say "I wish I had" will be unfair, because they give favorable treatment to those who offer bribes.

Cultivate the young people so that the future citizens will love you. Win supporters among those who are going to replenish your towns. Young people happily follow their hearts for twenty years, but then they become the next generation of citizens and raise children themselves. Recognizing that the present comes from the past, I began enlisting the youth's support at my accession. Elevate the young nobles, and promote the young soldiers. Enrich the rising generation of your subordinates: Equip them with knowledge, endow them with lands, and reward them with cattle.

Do not favor the children of nobles over those commoners, but choose your aides because of their skills. To be a strong ruler, you will need to have all skills at your disposal. Guard your frontier and staff your fortresses, for troops are useful to their commander.

Yet another Instruction shows the downside of kingship. Although this Instruction describes itself as advice from King Amenemhet (Ammenemes) I to his son King Sesostris I, it was Sesostris who composed it. The Instruction says that after rebellious nobles murdered Amenemhet in 1965 BCE, Sesostris composed the Instruction "as an accurate account" of Amenemhet's testimony "as a god" (Footnote 8).

The Instruction restates the mistrust pervading superior-subordinate relationships, the threats arising from political agendas and shifting loyalties. It asserts that proper behavior and good deeds do not protect a ruler from rebellion by close associates. Self-servingly, Sesostris said nothing about the rebels' motives.

Be on your guard against all subordinates, because you cannot be sure who is plotting against you. Do not be alone with them. Trust no brothers; recognize no friends, make no intimates. Such trust does you no good. Keep your thoughts to yourself, even when you are relaxing. No King has allies when trouble comes.

I gave to the poor. I raised the lowly. I helped the poor and the rich alike. Yet, those who ate my food became my opponents. Those I embraced plotted against me. Those who wore my fine linen looked on me as a has-been. Those who put on my perfume undermined me. . . .

They conspired against me without being heard and attacked me without being seen, even though I had adherents throughout the land. They fought me without regard for my good deeds in the past. Good fortune eludes one who overlooks those whom he should watch.

Protests in a Bureaucracy: "Everything is going well, and in addition, . . ."

The Egyptian bureaucracy had few levels, and even slaves could seek hearings from senior officials in their cities or regions. Civic and regional administrators throughout Egypt sent reports directly to the Vizier. These reports show that the bureaucracy was plagued by rampant theft, inefficiency, waste, and interpersonal dislike. Thus, the reality of Egyptian bureaucracy seems to have violated the high-minded values preached by Ptahhotep and Amenemope.

Here are two examples of these reports (Footnote 9). Such letters followed a formula in which the reporter first states that all is well, and then adds, almost as an afterthought, that things are not entirely perfect.

Written between 1279 and 1212 BCE --

Chief of Police Mininuy communicates to his lord, the Mayor of the Capital and Vizier Khay.

Life, prosperity, and health!

This is a letter to inform my lord.

The important locality of Pharaoh that is under my lord's authority is in excellent order, and the guardposts around it are in good shape. We have received the yearly wages, which are in excellent condition, comprising firewood, vegetables, fish, and new pottery. I call upon all the gods to keep Pharaoh healthy and to keep my good lord in favor with Pharaoh every day.

In addition, I have been my lord's servant for many years. I ran ahead of Pharaoh's horses, held the reins for him, and harnessed them for him. I made various reports to him, and he praised me in front of the Council of Thirty. He never found fault in me.

I served as a police officer in Western Thebes, guarding the guardposts of this important locality of Pharaoh. Then I was promoted to a Chief of Police, as a reward for my flawless conduct.

Please note, however, that Chief of Police Nakhtsobeki has been ruining the important locality of Pharaoh in which I work. I am telling my lord of his failings. He has been bullying my police officers in conducting investigations. "You are an old man and I am young," he says to me. "Just keep the locality in order for me. You are a has-been," he says. He confiscated my fields in the countryside; he took away two fields planted with vegetables, the produce of which belonged to my lord as the Vizier's share. He gave these fields to Chief of Police Monturekh and to the high priest of Montu. He also appropriated grain I had stored in the countryside.

This is a letter to inform my lord.

Written between 1182 and 1151 BCE --

To the fan-bearer on Pharaoh's right, the Mayor of the Capital and Vizier To:

Scribe Neferhotep communicates to his lord.

Life, prosperity, and health!

This is a letter to inform my lord.

I call upon many gods to keep Pharaoh healthy and to let him celebrate many jubilees as the ruler of every land, while you continue in his favor every day.

We are working on the nobles' tombs, which my lord commanded us to build. We are working properly and superbly and producing excellent results. Let not my lord worry about the tombs, as we are laboring intensely and not slackening.

In addition, we are exceedingly impoverished. Our supplies -- from the treasury, from the granary, and from the storehouse -- are all gone. A load of stone is not light! Indeed, six measures of grain were taken away and returned to us as six measures of dirt.

Please, my lord, provide us with means to stay alive. We are starving, and we cannot continue to live if we receive nothing.


As in Mesopotamia and Egypt, mass destruction, editing, and neglect erased a great majority of the ancient texts in China. Documents dating to 90 BCE blame some of this loss on Confucius, who died in 478 BCE. According to this legend, Confucius went through the king's library in the state of Chow, preserved by rewriting documents he regarded as important, and discarded the remainder. However, sources detailing Confucius' life indicate that he never visited Chow.

Much better documented is a mass destruction in 212 BCE. King Ch'eng, founding ruler of the Ch'in dynasty, wanted to replace the old feudal system with a new order, so he tried to erase traditions that had supported the old ways. He burned nearly all books and murdered nearly all literate people. Ironically, King Ch'eng ruled for just three more years after the burning and his dynasty lasted for only eight years after his death. Also many documents survived this destruction, as works were memorized by scholars, hidden in walls of houses and buried in graves of kings.

Even more losses have occurred since 200 BCE. Of 677 works in the imperial library of 0 CE, only 152 still exist. If destruction of old texts was often based on ideological criteria, so was their preservation. Many scholars rewrote texts, and with them, history. Some scholars seem to have attributed to their predecessors, texts that they themselves wrote.

Most surviving Chinese documents concern kings, presumably because it was kings who maintained libraries and supported scribes. The documents describe two fundamentally different approaches to rule: example setting and instrumental control.

Attracting Subordinates by Setting a Good Example

Before 230 BCE, China was not one nation but many feudal states, with smaller states depending on and subordinate to larger ones. These political structures aligned with clans - which are quite large extended families. Typically, one clan controlled each state, although some clans controlled no states. Also, cities often operated as independent political units.

One consequence was that larger states sought to acquire smaller affiliates. Of course, warfare was a method of gaining affiliates. Wars between states and revolts within them created an ever changing political system. Another method, more talked about in ancient texts, was for a ruler to display virtuous behavior. For example, here is some advice that Prime Minister Kaou-yaou gave to King Yu around 2200 BCE (Footnote 10).

Kaou-yaou said, "If rulers sincerely try to behave virtuously, they will receive intelligent advice and harmonious support."

Yu said, "That sounds right, but explain yourself further."

Kaou-yaou replied, "If rulers attend carefully to their personal improvement, with concern for the long-term, they will be able to show unselfish benevolence and to draw perceptive distinctions among the people in their service. Then, all intelligent people will exert themselves to serve the rulers; and through what is near, the rulers will be able to influence what is distant." Yu acknowledged the wisdom of these admirable words, "How true!"

Kaou-yaou counseled, "Success as a ruler arises from knowing people and keeping people satisfied."

Yu sighed, "Alas, even King Yao found it difficult to attain both of these goals. When rulers know people, the rulers are wise and can assign people to positions that they fit. When rulers keep people satisfied, the rulers are kind and the people cherish them in their hearts. If rulers are both wise and kind, what reason would they have to worry about rebels? what reason to replace bad subordinates? what reason to fear people who have charming words, insinuating styles, and great cunning?"

Some 400 years later, around 1765 to 1768 BCE, T'ang the Successful led a revolution that made him a king. E Yin served as T'ang's Prime Minister and close advisor. T'ang ruled only twelve years, then two of his sons ruled for a total of seven years. E Yin, who remained extremely powerful, then designated the next king to be T'ang's eldest grandson, T'ae-këa. As the following excerpts show, E Yin thought T'ae-këa needed a lot of guidance (Footnote 11).

Around 1746 to 1750 BCE, E Yin offered a sacrifice to the former king [T'ang] and presented the heir to the throne respectfully to his ancestor. . . .

E Yin said, "Of old, earlier rulers cultivated their virtue earnestly, and so Heaven inflicted no calamities. The spirits of the hills and rivers were all tranquil; and the birds and beasts, the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed happy environments. But one king failed to follow his ancestors' example, with the result that Heaven sent down calamities, employing the services of King T'ang [to overthrow this evil king]. . . . Our king T'ang brilliantly displayed his distinguished ability. When for oppression, he substituted his high-minded gentleness, the millions of the people gave him their hearts.

"Now your Majesty is entering into the estate left by his virtue. Everything depends on how you begin your reign. To generate love, you must love your relations. To generate respect, you must respect your elders. These feelings arise in the clan and state and they consummate in the realm.

"The former king [T'ang] based his actions on careful attention to the bonds that hold people together: He listened to protests and did not seek to suppress them. He recognized the wisdom of bygone people. When occupying the highest position, he displayed intelligence; when occupying a subordinate position, he displayed loyalty. He allowed others to show their good qualities and did not expect them to have every talent. In governing his own behavior, he was never satisfied.

"It was through these qualities that he came to rule myriad regions. How painstaking was he in these things! He went to great lengths to seek out wise people, whom he expected be helpful to his descendants and heirs. He defined punishments for wayward officials. . . .

The king would not reflect on these words, or listen to them. On seeing this, E Yin said, "To develop broad and clear views, the former king meditated in the early morning. He also sought on every side for people of ability and virtue to instruct him and guide his future. Do not frustrate his charge to me and bring on yourself your own overthrow. Be careful to strive for the virtue of self-restraint, and value long-term results. Be like an archer, who looks to see where the arrow is pointing, whether the arrow is aimed properly, and then lets go. Set serious goals for yourself, and follow the ways of your ancestor. If you do so, I will be delighted and be able to show that I have discharged my trust."

The king was not yet able to change his course. E Yin said to himself, "This is real unrighteousness, and it is becoming through practice a second nature. I cannot bear to be near such a disobedient fellow. I will build a place in the palace at T'ung, where he can reside quietly near the remains of the former king. This will be a lesson that will keep him from going astray for the rest of his life." The king went accordingly to the palace at T'ung, and dwelt during the period of mourning.

In the end, [after having been confined for three years,] the king became sincerely virtuous.

Behaving as a Noble Should

One of the most learned people of his time, Confucius had many students during his lifetime and many thousands more since his death. Sayings by Confucius and his main students were collected in a book titled The Analects. The book's origin is murky, as the oldest copies date only to around 2 BCE whereas Confucius lived around 500 BCE. The Analects was probably compiled long after Confucius' death by his students and their students, and words that it attributes to Confucius probably reflect his students' esteem for him and their own ideas about what he would have said.

Nearly all biographic statements about Confucius were also written long after he died and they include assertions that contradict better established facts, including claims about his having held exalted positions. Reliable sources indicate that Confucius held minor positions in the state of Lu, including inventory clerk for livestock, and that he earned his living partly by tutoring sons of nobles. Most of Confucius' students aspired to become senior officials, and some did so. Confucius himself probably attained his highest rank as Lu's police commissioner around 501 BCE. In that role, he participated in a failed effort to demolish strongholds of three powerful clans. The Duke of Lu seems to have held Confucius responsible for this failure, because shortly afterward, Confucius left Lu unexpectedly and his stated reasons seem trivial. Over thirteen years, Confucius and three students visited the states of Wei, Sung, Ch'en, Ts'ai, and Wei again. However, they left Wei quickly after Confucius gave its duke an untactful response; they traveled through Sung in disguise to avoid harm; and they lived in extreme poverty in Ch'en. In 484 BCE, they returned to Lu, where the Duke appointed Confucius an official of the lowest rank.

Confucius greatly respected and learned from experiences of ancient rulers and their advisors. His sayings echo ancient teachings about attracting followers by ruling well and leading by setting good examples, although he added his own emphases and sentiments. He extended prescriptions that had been formulated for rulers to all nobles. His teachings focus on nobility, his dominant and never-ending theme being that nobles should behave properly, should follow The Way. We use the phrase 'behave as a noble should' to denote this complex idea. Although Confucius saw The Way as a guide to life in general, not to supervisor-subordinate relations as such, some of his sayings speak to these relations. Indeed, The Analects affords the main surviving source about the advice that may have been given to government officials other than rulers.

We offer exemplary passages from The Analects on three topics: proper behavior for nobles, leadership, and superior-subordinate relations (Footnote 12).

How a Noble Should Behave

2: 3. Confucius said, "If you guide people with commands and use punishment to keep them in line, they will avoid serving you and those who do serve you will have no self-respect. If you guide people through proper behavior and regulate them by behaving as a noble should, they will serve you voluntarily and retain their self-respect."

13: 13. Confucius said, "People who are able to manage themselves properly should find no difficulty in filling any administrative position. But if people cannot manage themselves properly, how can they hope to manage others properly?"

17: 6. Tzu-chang asked Confucius about noble behavior. Confucius said, "A leader who would practice five principles could induce noble behavior everywhere." Tzu-chang asked, "What are these five principles?" Confucius said, "Respect, tolerance, truth, diligence and kindness. People respect one who is respectful; the multitude give support to one who is tolerant; people trust one who speaks truthfully; success comes to one who is diligent; people willingly serve one who is kind."


13: 6. Confucius said, "If a leader behaves as a noble should, all goes well even though the leader gives no orders. But if a leader does not behave as a noble should, people will not even obey when the leader gives orders."

20: 2. Tzu-chang asked Confucius, "What must one do to be fit to govern the land?" Confucius said, "A leader should pay attention to five lovely things and avoid four ugly things." Tzu-chang asked, "What are these five lovely things?" Confucius said, "An effective leader can show generosity without falling into extravagance, can assign people work without arousing resentment, can achieve ambitions without acting selfishly, can feel pride without being arrogant, and can inspire awe without displaying ferocity."

Tzu-chang asked, "What do you mean by 'show generosity without falling into extravagance'?" Confucius said, "If a leader gives to people only those advantages that are really advantageous to them, is the leader not showing generosity without falling into extravagance? If a leader assigns to people only those tasks that they can perform well, is the official not assigning work without arousing resentment? If a leader aspires to proper behavior, who can say that the official is selfish? An effective leader, whether dealing with many people or few, with the insignificant or the great, never presumes to slight people. Is not this indeed feeling pride without being arrogant? A properly behaved official wears clothes and hats so elegantly and maintains such a dignified demeanor that people are in awe as soon as they see the official from afar. Is not this inspiring awe without displaying ferocity?"

Tzu-chang asked, "What are the four ugly things?" Confucius said, "To put people to death without first having tried to reform them, that is savagery. To demand results without first having given due warning, that is tyranny. To enforce an early deadline after having been tardy in ordering work, that is tormenting. And similarly, to be grudging about letting a person have something that one knows they should have, that is acting like a petty functionary."

Superiors and Subordinates

3: 18. Confucius said, "Were anyone to obey all the established procedures when serving a superior, the subordinate would be thought servile."

3: 19. Duke Ting asked, "How should a superior use subordinates and how should subordinates serve their superior?" Confucius replied, "In employing subordinates, a superior should adhere strictly to established procedures. Subordinates should devote themselves sincerely to their superior's service."

10: 2. At court, when conversing with junior ministers, Confucius was affable; when conversing with senior ministers, he was respectful and courteous. When the ruler was present, his attitude was constant alertness and solemn readiness.

14: 23. Tzu-lu asked him how to serve a superior. Confucius said, "Don't oppose covertly. Resist overtly."

Controlling Subordinates through Laws, Competition, Rewards, and Punishments

Around 350 BCE, the small state of Ch'in began to grow larger and more powerful. At that time, Ch'in's prime minister was Shang Yang, a believer in total control of the populace. Shang Yang's ideas about supervision diverged strikingly from the ancient advice given to kings (Footnote 13). For example:

If a ruler employs virtuous officials, the people will place primary importance on their social relations; but if a ruler employs wicked officials, the people will place primary importance on the statutes. The virtuous respond to others and seek agreement; the wicked spy upon others and argue with them. When the virtuous monitor others' behavior, they overlook crimes; when the wicked monitor others' behavior, they punish crimes. In the former case, the people are stronger than the law; in the latter case, the law is stronger than the people. When the people are the stronger, there is lawlessness; when the law is the stronger, the state will be strong. Thus, it is said: "Governing through good people leads to lawlessness and weakness; governing through wicked people leads to order and strength."

Shang Yang urged rulers to support laws with rewards, punishments, and ideologies.

Historians credit Shang Yang with initiating the totalitarian rule that enabled Ch'in to dominate the entire civilized world (as ancient Chinese viewed the world). Shang Yang himself believed that he had found a formula for total domination, and by 221 BCE, his state conquered or otherwise seized every state in feudal China. King Ch'eng, who ruled from 246 BCE until 210 BCE, called himself First August Emperor of the Ch'in.

One influence on the First August Emperor was Han Fei Tzu, who admired the works of Shang Yang. The only noble among the renown Chinese philosophers, Han Fei belonged to the ruling clan in the small and unwealthy state of Han. He was unhappy about his state's condition, but felt he could not present his ideas in person because he stuttered so badly. Therefore, he frequently sent letters of advice to his king. When the king ignored his letters, Han Fei wrote a book. His king also ignored his book.

Although his own king ignored Han Fei's writings, one important ruler did appreciate them -- King Ch'eng of Ch'in. When Ch'in attacked Han, the king of Han dispatched Han Fei as a goodwill envoy to Ch'in. However, the suspicious King Ch'eng committed Han Fei to prison, where he committed suicide.

Han Fei wanted to give rulers practical advice about how to strengthen their control and how to remain in power. His ideas differed from traditional ones. He certainly did not intend that his advice should apply to subordinate officials as well as rulers. He never addressed advice to officials, and he told rulers to behave very unlike their subordinates.

Han Fei saw his contribution as expediting adaptation to changing social values and changing economic conditions: "People of antiquity strove to be known as moral and virtuous. Those of the middle ages struggled to be known as wise and resourceful. People of today fight for the reputation of being vigorous and powerful." "People of old made light of goods, not because they were benevolent, but because goods were abundant. People of today quarrel and pillage, not because they are brutish, but because goods are scarce."

One of Han Fei's themes was pervasive conflict between superiors and subordinates. He advised rulers to distrust subordinates, to conceal their thoughts and intentions, and to inspire fear in their subordinates (Footnote 14).

It is said: "A ruler must not reveal desires; for if a ruler reveals desires, the officials put on facades that please the ruler. A ruler must not reveal personal views, because if a ruler does so, the officials show false faces." Similarly, it is said: "If a ruler does away with likes and dislikes, the officials show their true feelings. If a ruler shuns wile and cunning, the officials watch their steps. . . ."

Rulers stand in danger of being undercut in five ways:

officials can block their rulers' plans,

officials can control the wealth and resources of the state,

officials can issue any orders they please,

officials can take the credit for doing good deeds, and

officials can build up cliques.

If officials can block rulers, the rulers lose the control. If officials can control the wealth and resources, rulers cannot dispense bounty to others. If officials can issue any orders they please, the rulers lose authority. If officials can take credit for good deeds, the rulers lose the claim to providing benefits. If officials can build up cliques of their own, the rulers lose supporters. Rulers alone should exercise these powers; the powers should never pass into the hands of officials. . . .

To control scheming subordinates, rulers should apply rewards and punishments.

Astute rulers control their officials by means of two handles alone. The two handles are punishment and reward. What do I mean by punishment and reward? To inflict mutilation and death on people is to punish; to bestow honor and favor is to reward.

Officials fear punishments and hope for rewards. Hence, if rulers wield the handles of punishment and reward, officials will fear the rulers' sternness and hope to receive the rulers' generosity. However, the evil officials of this age are different. They would take the handle of punishment from their rulers so they can inflict punishments on people they hate, and they would take the handle of reward from their rulers so they can bestow rewards on people they like. If rulers do not reserve to themselves the power to dispense rewards and punishments and instead allow officials to hand these out, then the people fear the officials while holding the rulers in contempt, and they attend to the officials and turn away from the rulers. This is the calamity that results when rulers yield control of punishments and rewards. . . .

Yet another contributor to Ch'in's rise was Li Ssu, who became its prime minister sometime between 219 BCE and 213 BCE and who was as ruthless as his Emperor. On Li Ssu's advice, the First August Emperor abolished the feudal nobility, replaced the feudal states with administrative districts, burned almost all books, standardized weights and measures and writing, built better roads, relocated masses of people, and began building the Great Wall.

Li Ssu had no use for rewards and his approach to punishment made Han Fei's seem gentle. Whereas Han Fei said, "astute rulers never use wise officials or virtuous people for selfish purposes," Li Ssu told his emperor to use his power for personal enjoyment (Footnote 15):

Astute rulers should be able to fulfill their duties and use the technique of punishment. Under threat of punishment, officials have to exert their abilities in utmost devotion to their rulers. When rulers define their statuses relative to officials unmistakably, and they make clear the duties of subordinates to superiors, then no one in their empires, whether worthy or unworthy, will dare do otherwise than exert their strength and fulfill their duties in devotion to their rulers. Thus, rulers can control their empires single-handedly and cannot be controlled by anyone. As a result, rulers can enjoy themselves to the utmost. How can talented and astute rulers afford not to pay attention to this point? . . .

When rulers use punishment effectively, they have no corrupt officials. When rulers have no corrupt officials, their empires are peaceful. When their empires are peaceful, the rulers are venerated and exalted. When rulers are venerated and exalted, they are using punishment without fail. When rulers use punishment without fail, they obtain what they seek. When they obtain what they seek, their states are wealthy. When their states are wealthy, the rulers enjoy abundant pleasures. Therefore, when rulers apply the skill of punishment, they get everything they desire. The officials and the people are so busy trying to correct their faults that they have no time to devise trouble.


Even the most ancient documents show awareness of difficult relations between superiors and subordinates. Superiors distrust their subordinates, and subordinates distrust their superiors, yet each has to depend of the other.

One result has been ambivalence. Mesopotamians, for instance, viewed leadership as essential to effective work and leadership skills as distinctive to particular people, but they also joked that rulers' are unable to support themselves. The Egyptian Instruction of Merikare oscillates between harshness and kindness, between idealism and pragmatism. Chinese writer Han Fei advised rulers not to trust their subordinates and yet to rely on them to solve problems.

Managers who rise to high positions need to recognize that their subordinates are almost certain to complain and make jokes about their actions and decisions. Fault finding and ridicule are pervasive responses to control by someone else. It is clear that subordinates do not always appreciate their superiors' contributions to organizations and societies. Even when subordinates do acknowledge their superiors' contributions, they also see deficiencies.

Quite a few writers sought to lessen abrasions between superiors and subordinates. They urged superiors to restrain their exercise of power, to focus on behaving properly themselves, to be just and considerate, and to cultivate support of the populace over the long run. They urged subordinates to accept subordination, to demonstrate respect, to act honestly and forthrightly, and to pursue their superiors' best interests rather than their own. On the other hand, other writers advised superiors to be wary of their subordinates, to deal harshly with dissenters and rebels, to pit subordinates against one another, and to manipulate subordinates by means of rewards and punishments. Tales of violent insurrection show that subordinates did not always accept control from above. Although it may have been King Ch'eng's harsh methods that enabled him to unite China, his empire survived him for only four years.

Superiors' control of armed force enabled them to seize property, to alter people's statuses, and even to inflict death, so their subjects had reason to fear them and to avoid actions that might arouse superiors' displeasure. Mesopotamians enlisted gods to help them protest a ruler's actions. Egyptian schoolboys were taught to be submissive, circumspect, and wary. Although low-level personnel could appeal directly to Egypt's Vizier, they did so in a stylized fashion that portrayed their complaints as afterthoughts. Confucius urged subordinates to devote themselves to their superiors. One ancient Chinese legend explains that a powerful Prime Minister confined his young king in an isolated palace for three years, until "the king became sincerely virtuous" and followed the Prime Minister's advice.

Superiors' powers generally increased with their hierarchical positions, but so did the political pressures which they had to contend. Almost all the documents authored by rulers talk about the need for political support from the populace at large and especially from nobles. Many documents also say that rulers need support of gods. For instance, Prime Minister Kaou-yaou told his king: "Heaven hears and sees as our people hear and see. Heaven discerningly judges our actions and displays its terrors, as our people discerningly judge our actions and can awe us: Such strong connections there are between Heaven and earth! How careful ought to be the rulers of the earth!"

Since differing political interests may make contrary claims, remaining in control required an ability to make the inconsistent less so. The Egyptians and Chinese used schooling to inculcate shared values and acceptance of existing social hierarchies. Such schooling focused on the sons of nobles. However, the Chinese records do contain examples of superiors seeking out unusually able commoners and promoting them to high positions. Indeed, one of the oldest Chinese stories tells how King Yao sought out "one of the lowly and insignificant who deserves to rise higher" and ultimately made this man his successor.

The roles of superiors and subordinates are complex ones. It is often unclear what actions one should take, what words one should say, what emotions one should feel. All strategies for control entail advantages and disadvantages, as do all strategies for subordination. Clearly, ancient people saw these trade-offs and recognized their complexity. A good example is Confucius' attempt to state the essence of successful leadership. He told leaders to try to see issues from their subordinates' viewpoints and to beware of traps created by power:

13: 15. Duke Ting asked, "Is there a single phrase that summarizes what makes a ruler succeed?" Confucius replied, "No single phrase could ever do that. But there is a phrase that comes near to it. It is the saying: 'It is hard to be a ruler and not easy to be a subject either.' If a ruler really understands the difficulties of rule, would not this understanding be almost enough to produce success?"

Duke Ting asked, "Is there a single phrase that summarizes what makes a ruler fail?" Confucius replied, "No single phrase could ever do that. But there is a phrase that comes near to it. It is the saying: 'The greatest pleasure in being a ruler is that one can say whatever one chooses and no one dares to disagree' If what a ruler says is good, it is of course all right that the ruler should be obeyed. But if what a ruler says is bad, would not obedience be almost enough produce failure?"


1. Our rendition of Atrahasis' story is based on translations by Ferry (1992), Foster (1993), Gardner & Maier (1984), Heidel (1970), Kovacs (1985), Lambert & Millard (1969), Leonard (1934), and Tigay (1982).) Because translations of ancient works differ, the quotations in this article are own interpretations compiled from several translations. These interpretations rely more strongly on translations with better scholarly documentation, and they use terminology of the late twentieth century.

2. Analysts may produce quite different estimates of the dates of ancient documents. Thus, most dates are approximate and some are very inexact. 253 BCE might mean 'between 265 and 240 BCE' or 'between 300 and 200 BCE.

3. These interpretations of sayings integrate translations by Foster (1993), Gordon (1968), and Lambert (1960).

4. This interpretation of the protest relies on translations by Foster (1993) and Lambert (1960).

5. These excerpts from Ptahhotep's Instruction are based on translations by Erman & Blackman (1927), Faulkner, Wente, & Simpson (1972), Foster (1992), and Lichtheim (1973). The numbers preceding paragraphs indicate their positions in the Instruction.

6. These excerpts from the Instruction of Amenemope are based on translations made by Faulkner, Wente, & Simpson (1972) and Griffith (1926). The numbers preceding paragraphs indicate their positions in the Instruction.

7. These excerpts from the Instruction of Merikare are based on translations made by Erman & Blackman (1927), Faulkner, Wente, & Simpson (1972), Foster (1992), and Lichtheim (1973).

8. These excerpts from the Instruction of Amenemhet derive from translations made by Breasted (1962), Erman & Blackman (1927), Faulkner, Wente, & Simpson (1972), Foster (1992), and Lichtheim (1973).

9. These letters interpret translations by Wente (1990).

10. This version of Kaou-yaou's advice interprets a translation by Legge (1865).

11. This interpretation of E Yin's advice builds upon translations by Legge (1865) and Wu (1928).

12. These interpretations of The Analects integrate translations by Chan (1963), Lau (1979), Pound (1951), and Waley (1938). The numbers preceding paragraphs designate their positions in The Analects.

13. This rendition of Shang Yang's writings is based on Duyvendak's (1928) translation.

14. This version of Han Fei's writings is based on translations by Liao (1959), Peerenboom (1993), and Watson (1963).

15. This interpretation of Li Ssu's writings is based on a translation by de Bary, Chan, & Watson (1960).


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