Business Growth

What can business leaders learn from fairy tales?

January 15, 2018

Fairy tales are fascinating little things. Despite how different our childhoods might have been, they’re something that we can all relate to.

We all remember the duplicitousness of Rumpelstiltskin, the flowing locks of Rapunzel, the impending grizzly bear-shaped danger that stalked Goldilocks. But they weren’t just arbitrary stories, they were parables, each with its own life lesson to be derived. The lessons were also open to interpretation, and could be applied to all kinds of scenarios.

Over a series of blogs, gunnercooke will be exploring some of the classic fairy tales, and acquiring some lessons that can be applied to the world of business.

  1. A lesson in Self-Awareness from The Emperor’s New (Savile Row Suit) Clothes

Of course, in the original story, the Emperor in question was wearing dress more akin to the times. Or so he was led to believe, at least.

In the Hans Christian Anderson classic, the Emperor employs two weavers who promise him a new suit of clothes they say is invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. In reality, they make no clothes at all, causing everyone to believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new ‘clothes’, no one dares say that they see no suit of clothes on him, for fear of being seen as stupid. Only when a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” is the deceit revealed.

The fable presents a number of lessons that businesses can learn from.

The importance of self-awareness

This is especially true for leaders. The reason the Emperor was so easily fooled, was because he was unable to accept and confront his weaknesses. Literally, he would rather parade the cobbled streets naked, than accept he had limitations of any kind. This lack of self-awareness resulted in humiliation for all involved, aside, of course, for the weavers. Although they were no doubt hanged later for their misdemeanour.

A leader lacking self-awareness, can engage in behaviours that damage a company in all sorts of ways.

The dangers of a fear culture  

Apart from being unwilling to expose themselves as ‘stupid’, or ‘unworthy’ by telling the Emperor that he was in fact, stark naked, the Emperor’s subjects will most likely have feared the repercussions of making such an admission.

Leaders don’t need to know the answer to everything. There’s no problem with seeking feedback, or getting things wrong. What is a problem though, is when staff feel unable to share ideas, or point out different and better ways of doing things, for fear of ridicule or reprimand.

All levels of the workforce can have great ideas, and they should always feel comfortable to share them.

Surrounding yourself with the right people

Deep down, every one of the Emperor’s aides knew full well, that by hitting the streets in his new suit, he was about to engage is a very public act of indecent exposure. Yet not one of them said a word.

Criticism can be as hard to take as it is to give. However, if we are to develop professionally to our full potential, criticism is vital. Business leaders must surround themselves with colleagues who will challenge them, and call them out on decisions and behaviours that are inappropriate. They can of course, surround themselves with the proverbial nodding dogs, but there’s every chance they’ll be heading to their next board meeting with a suspicious breeze whistling between their legs.


Next week we’ll look at the Princess and the Pea, and what business leaders could possibly learn from this multi-mattress fable…

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