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Please all and you will please none.

Aesop’s fables 6th Century BC

To what extent do you as a leader have to listen to other people’s opinions? This is a question I get asked all the time by executives I coach.

The answer? Not much and yet also a great deal.

Do you remember that Aesop’s fable of the man, his son and their donkey that were on their way to market?

As they were walking along by the Donkey’s side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”  So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”  So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”  Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor Donkey of yours—you and your hulking son?”   The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.  “That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them: “Please all, and you will please none.”

This story is a salient reminder of the risk you take when you listen closely to the opinions of others, but fail to discern your own inner guidance. As a leader, it is your role to listen to your own internal instinct and then be courageous in following it.

‘But’, I hear you say, ‘what about getting our people involved, taking their opinions into account? Aren’t we supposed to listen as leaders and work with the opinions of others?’

Yes… when some questions have already been answered by you.

WHY? (Why are we doing this?)

This is the vision question, and enables you to think through the meaning behind what you are choosing to do. In the story above, no-one questioned why the man and his son chose to travel to market, but perhaps it was an important consideration in the decisions that followed. If they wanted to sell the donkey, then carrying it was probably a good way to go. If they had to work at market, riding on its back was probably the right decision.

It is the responsibility of the leader to make sure that the ‘why’ question is answered as clearly as possible in the first instance. It guides all other considerations.

WHAT? (What are we going to do?)

In the story above, the man and his son answered the ‘what?’ by choosing to set out for market together with their donkey on the day in question. This is a question you could share with others, dependent on the final two questions posed below:

WHO? (Who are the stakeholders? Who has an opinion?)

In the fable above, the villagers who had opinions were not the most important people to listen to in the journey to market. Each opinion came from someone with a personal agenda far removed from what the man and his son were trying to achieve. If someone is a ‘stakeholder’ in your decision, is affected by it and can contribute to it with accountability, you would be wise to consider their contribution.

WHERE? WHEN? (Where or when am I making this decision? Is this the best time to take contributions into account?)

In the fable, the journey was already underway when opinions from others changed the approach. While I am not advocating that you continue blindly without consideration for continuous improvement to your approach, It is important to consider where and when you take feedback from others. The man and his son lost sight of the bigger picture they were aiming to achieve and found themselves deflected by opinions from people who could only see the immediate situation.

So when is it appropriate to take other people’s opinions into account if you are a leader?

When the HOW? question arises.

Once you have a vision or goal that you are working towards, and you have the people around you who can contribute and be accountable for their contributions, and you are still in the planning or evaluation phase of your decision, then you would ask the question:

How will we go about this task / achieve this objective / travel this journey?

(c) Anne Fuller-Good

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