I remember the first time I read through Aesop’s Fables. The talking animals and the simple life lessons fascinated me. As an adult, I continue to enjoy many of these short little stories with a meaning and a moral.  Many of the lessons are more poignant now that I have a few more years of life experience under my belt. One of my favorite is the fable that deals with pleasing everyone all of the time.

The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey – Aesop

Are you familiar with “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”? Here is a copy from Lit2Go.

Pleasing EverybodyA Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its 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 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.”

The Danger:

Obviously Aesop was not advocating a sense of total narcissism, in which a leader insists that he always knows the best and only way to do things. A leader who values learning, and who understands the need for humility, recognizes that he makes mistakes. Most mistakes are made while doing! Along the journey we often receive criticism, advice, and correction,  which come from other people as they observe our actions.

It is not uncommon to receive feedback about a program that is not working the way it should. Small things happen along the way that force us to reassess processes and procedures. I find this is an absolutely normal part of accomplishing a goal or achieving a vision. A goal can look easy on paper. Visions look achievable when they are written. But most written goals and visions only start to get the job done. The real work comes in the doing. Once we set off in the “doing”, it is completely normal to encounter obstacles.

The vision/mission of the man in the fable was simply to get to market with his son and his donkey. The exact “how” was not important, and the three of them walking along the road seems fairly normal. It is an acceptable way of accomplishing the task. But then someone questions efficiency and proper use of the involved resources. Later someone judges the values and motives of the involved parties.  And finally, unable to assess the incoming suggestions and unwilling to return to a previous model, the farmer and his son decide on something ridiculous, and lose the ability to accomplish the original mission.

But if Aesop had not provided the moral, we could assume that the point is that we need to say: “I do not need your advice. I am perfectly capable of getting to the market without your help.”  There is a real danger in thinking that the moral of the story is “Do not ever listen to anyone, you alone know what is best.”  Would the farmer have had more success if he had done it his way?  Perhaps.  Perhaps the story would have ended differently, but equally bad.  The danger is not found in change.  The danger is an out of control desire centered on pleasing others.

Why do we have the “pleasing everyone” desire?

The moral of the story is “Please all, and you will please none.” The real lesson deals with pleasing everyone all of the time. We know that pleasing everyone is an impossible goal, but most of us as leaders have a blind-spot in this area. As humans leaders have an innate desire to belong.  It is part of what makes us human.  This fundamental need to belong is called the “belongingness hypothesis.” This hypothesis states that people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior.

This need to belong means that certain people carry a lot of weight in our lives.  It also means that there are consequences of relational deprivation.  As humans we modify our behavior (to differing degrees) based on this fear of deprivation.  This means that we are susceptible to “pleasing everyone” changes.  When we know that our current course of action displeases a spouse, a child, an influential board member, a mentor, or a person we are simply trying to impress, we may seek to make quick adjustments to eliminate potential conflict.  We want to make sure that these crucial stakeholders are happy.

Sadly the adjustments to please stakeholders often take place without considering the long-term implications. Knee-jerk reactions lead to knee-jerk reactions, which eventually end to vision derailment.  The answer is not pushing down the desire to belong, however.  The solution comes from changing the way we react, and minimizing the “pleasing everyone all of the time” weakness that can make progress difficult.

Fixing the Problem.

It takes real leadership to be able to hear criticism, learn on the go, and stay true to visions and goals. Making good mid-course corrections means pending adequate time evaluating the motives and the impact of changes.

Motives:  The leader must ask themselves honestly:  Why am I making this change?  What feedback is causing this change?  Who is making the feedback?  (Does this make a difference?) Are there other evidences that my current course of action will not be effective?  Why this change?  Why now?

Impact:  The leader also needs to ask:  What is the end result of this change?  What new changes will become necessary because of this change?  What will happen when another key stakeholder is upset by the change and makes a different suggestion?  Does this bring us to our goal faster?  more efficiently?  Are we remaining true to our vision, or are we drifting?

This may require getting more opinions, possibly outside your organization. A consultant or a coach may help the leader look deeper at their motives.   Goals and vision are made strategically, and changes in course should also be made strategically. Pleasing stakeholders is a reason to make a change, but not always a good one!  Pleasing everyone is almost never a reason to make a change, and is in almost always impossible.

In reality, the end result is more often:  “Please all, and you will please none.”