Are we an aberration of Mother Nature?
Enjoying a little family reunion presently, I have been able to spend some precious time with my sister and niece. Every time my brother, sister and I get together, I am reminded of the days we pored over a hard cover book called Aesop’s Fables.
While my mother and father prepared us for life in countless ways, this book and all its illustrated teachings about relationships and behaviour resonated with me – perhaps because I love animals in general.
And yet, now that I have had quite a few more years under my belt, it is more than apparent that the malice and selfishness often portrayed by the fables reside firmly in the hearts of men (and women) – rather than our friends in the animal kingdom. Anthropomorphising that is, perhaps, a touch unfair.
So here is my take on how stories that have “attributed human form or personality to things not human” (Merriam Webster) can, in a roundabout way, be applied to working life.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing
“Appearances can be deceptive.”
Many of us know of this story – perhaps without attributing it to Aesop. The story goes that a wolf finds a way to deceive an unsuspecting herd of sheep by disguising itself in sheepskin. One by one, the wolf devours each sheep, and the moral of the fable is that “Appearances can be deceptive”.
In my humble opinion, anthropomorphising the wolf in sheepskin was really quite a leap in imagination.
As a kid, the horror of this image really stuck in my mind – but as the years have gone by, I realise that the animal kingdom appears to be much more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) than human interaction and relationships.
Observing the senior leadership team of one company implode on itself and alliances shift more vividly and dramatically than any reality TV show ever could – and how the once revered senior leader fell from grace only to be isolated in one corner – taught me many things about working life. I did not lose trust in humankind; however I learnt the consequences of a weak organisational culture.
Are we aware of the “wolves” (it is unfortunate that the wolf is the antagonist in so many stories as they are my favourite creatures!) in our midst?
As leaders, it behooves us not to be taken in and to spend more time to weed them out if they are unproductive and simultaneously disrupt employee engagement.
On the flipside, are we the “wolves”? I cannot say this for all leaders, but when it comes to the crunch and when an organisation needs to optimise performance, leaders who appear not to see through the façade do cut loose the people who spend a disproportionate amount of time brown-nosing and not delivering.
Goose with the golden eggs
“Greed often overreaches itself.”
Another famous fable is one where a farmer is overjoyed upon discovering a goose that would lay one golden egg every day.
Ironically, the richer he became the greedier he got till one day, he decided to kill his goose to get all the gold at once. Alas, he found no gold within.
As leaders, do we make decisions on behalf of our people (the very same people who place their trust in us) that result in them enduring worsening conditions so that the organisation can prosper?
Do we change the goalposts, change the rules of the game, and indeed change the vision and mission without gaining consensus?
Worse yet, do these changes happen without fanfare but gradually, creeping insidiously into every decision and new direction taken?
Whether you are a CEO (chief executive officer), a community leader or the president of your student body, we need to be aware that it is not okay to make decisions without due consideration of the “geese” who ultimately are responsible for the success or failure of organisations.
Let us ask ourselves if our priorities, whilst clear at the outset, have become muddied and compromised.
Taking stock is the first step, and then asking the difficult questions of ourselves as leaders and how we may have steered off course, is next.
Clarity in communication to our people in good times and in bad helps build credibility.
The wind and the sun
The wind and the sun were disputing who was stronger, and both used their strengths in a challenge – both were to try to have a traveller remove his coat. With the sun emerging the winner for shining brightly when the wind’s attempts only caused the traveller to wrap his coat tighter around himself, the moral of the fable is:
“Kindness affects more than severity.”
When applying this to working life, I believe there is also a strong need to know the people you work with.
Understanding what drives your people or clients gives context – as purely being aware of our strengths in a vacuum may not help us understand when and how we should assert them.
So maybe your team prefers a blustery wind rather than a bright sunny day – following from the golden goose above – we must work on keeping our people engaged, but know their preferences and not assume that what we as leaders like would automatically be enjoyed by our teams.
Joseph Tan has written frequently on the topic of employee engagement (not fables!) and you can check them out by going to www.leaderonomics.com lest you want to be the topic of water cooler conversation on “who would bell the cat”!
Karen and her Pa used to engage in people-watching a great deal – trying to imagine the story surrounding the individuals walking by. She realises that it is so important to take time to connect with the people closest to her – family, friends, the great world-changers at work – if not for the reason that it would be much less peculiar to chat with them, rather than the strangers rushing by. To engage with her, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Hard Talk articles, click here.
First appeared on Leaderonomics.com. Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 11 July 2015