A Fabled Approach to Improving Leadership
Stories are part of our human-ness. So, why not take the essential story—a fable—and apply it to the workplace and draw from it what wisdom we can to better understand ourselves and to improve how we lead and how we manage.
“Fables for Leaders” is an “un-textbook” (no acronyms, no lists of habits, and no quadrants) that covers a variety of topics relevant to leadership, teamwork, and followership and is based on my many years in administration and use of literature in teaching management and leadership.
Here are a few fables and interpretations from the book to ponder.
Krylov’s The Swan, the Pike, and the Crab
Whene’er companions don’t agree,
They work without accord;
And naught but trouble doth result,
Although they all work hard.
One day a swan, a pike, a crab,
Resolved a load to haul;
All three were harnessed to the cart,
And pulled together all.
But though they pulled with all their might,
The cartload on the bank stuck tight.
The swan pulled upward to the skies;
The crab did backward crawl;
The pike made for the water straight —
It proved no use at all!
Now, which of them was most to blame
’Tis not for me to say;
But this I know: the load is there
Unto this very day.
No doubt, there’s an easy solution: a kick-ass leader to bring this transfixed trio in line! Yes, a muleteer’s whip would get the job done, but why don’t the swan, pike, and crab cooperate? Do they (and us) always need to be told what to do?
Had they cooperated, the metaphoric cart would have moved on. Probably Krylov’s point is that some people are never going to cooperate “without accord”; hence “the load is there unto this very day.”
While we all offer different talents in a group effort, it makes good sense to establish Role and Purpose, two quintessential rules for group development. When work groups were at odds, I saw our organization’s cart bog down. Neither collaboration compromise nor consensus was possible, leaving outcomes purely to chance. Who to cut the Gordian knot?
Aesop’s The Boy Bathing
A Boy was bathing in a river and got out of his depth, and was in great danger of being drowned. A man who was passing along a road hard by heard his cries for help, and went to the riverside and began to scold him for being so careless as to get into deep water, but made no attempt to help him. “Oh, sir,” cried the Boy, “please help me first and scold me afterwards.”
Give assistance, not advice, in a crisis.
One translator makes it explicit: “The fable shows that people who lecture someone during a moment of crisis are offering criticism that is inappropriate and out of place.”
This epimythium (the moral at the end) is, for once, on target. When things are falling apart, don’t waste time on the non-essentials such as looking for causes. The drowning boy’s ignorance is the obvious cause, the lesson is also obvious: Learn how to swim or avoid the water.
While it may satisfy an inner need to criticize, my asking someone “What were you thinking?” for some stupid behavior is just another form of blaming or shaming. Better to offer ideas for avoiding future failures or ask the question, “What would you be willing to do differently?”
Aesop’s Jupiter and the Two Sacks
Jupiter, the ruler of gods and men, gives each person two sacks to carry. The first sack contains all your faults, and you wear that on your back. The second sack contains other people’s faults, and that is the one that dangles in front of you, hanging around your neck.
As a result, you find it easy to see other people’s faults, but you cannot see your own.
Rereading this little bit of wisdom, I was reminded of one of the major mistakes—along with a multitude of inherent limitations—we are prone to make in performance appraisals, that of the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” In brief, this happens because of our tendency to attribute favorable outcomes for ourselves as caused by our excellent internal qualities (fairness, hard work, perspicacity, etc.), while seeing our failures as caused by external forces (misfortune, envy, etc.) beyond our control.
However, when we view the outcomes of other people, we use the opposite view—we tend to see others’ success as a product of luck and their failure as a reflection of their less-than-admirable qualities: incompetence, laziness or something else within their control. En Garde!
Aesop’s Aesop and the Bow
There was an Athenian who saw Aesop shooting marbles with some boys in the street. He burst out laughing, thinking how foolish Aesop looked, an old man playing marbles —but Aesop makes fun of you; you don’t make fun of Aesop. So when Aesop heard the Athenian laughing, he said nothing in reply but simply took an unstrung bow and put it down on the ground where the man could see it. Then he said, “Hey, Mr. Know-It-All, riddle me this: what does this bow mean?” Aesop’s words got the people’s attention, and a crowd gathered round. The Athenian was baffled; he thought and he thought, but he could not figure out the riddle, and finally he gave up. Having defeated the man in this battle of wits, Aesop then revealed the meaning of the bow. “If you have your bow tightly strung at all times, it will break. You need to let it rest sometimes, so that it will be ready whenever you need it.
The human mind is like that bow: it needs to relax every once in a while.
Even the winged Cupid has to give his bow a rest from time to time. And so it is at work. If, without cease, we keep our nose to the grindstone, our ear to the ground, our eye on the ball, and our shoulder to the wheel, we’ll wind up as humorless and clichéd as the last four phrases! Worse, we’ll be less productive than if we take breaks. I was surprised with the varied response from staff when I organized a “Day in the Woods.” This was a playful teambuilding experience and far away from e-mail, voice-mail, offices, desks, and computers. Some took part with enthusiasm; others were reluctant but showed up with an open mind, willing to try out something new. Others, unlike Elvis, never left the building! They saw a day off playing group games as a waste of time—or so they said. (I think the group’s being a mix of supervisors and staff deterred some. From my work with corporate groups, I have seen bosses reluctant to mix and mingle; a few appeared fearful of not doing well, of not having THE answer to a problem-solving activity.)
Invariably, the results of those days away were new and strengthened relationships, new perspectives, and, oddly enough, fresh ideas on how to get work done.
Excerpt from “Fables for Leaders” by John Lubans with illustrations by Béatrice Coron (Ezis Press, 2017) For more information, visit:
John Lubans is a retired higher education administrator with a specialty in large research libraries. He is the author of “Fables for Leaders” (Ezis Press, 2017). For more of his fables, see his blog, “Leading from the Middle,” in which he posts a weekly fable with insightful commentary (blog.lubans.org). A Fulbright Scholar twice over, he is a visiting professor at the University of Latvia in Riga, where he teaches annually his class on “The Democratic Workplace.”