Folk Tales and Leadership

Excerpted from “Leading so People Will Follow” by Erika Andersen (Jossey-Bass, October 2012).

By Erika Andersen

Once upon a time…

Even now, as adults, when we hear those words, there’s something in most of us that perks up and starts to listen. We love stories. And stories have always served important functions for us. They bring us together and reinforce our sense of community. They engage, amuse, enthrall, and titillate. And they teach: Throughout history, before most people could read and write, stories—told by firesides and in village gatherings—were the mechanism by which we handed down laws and values, religions and taboos, knowledge and wisdom.

Think of stories as the cultural DNA of a pre-literate society. The stories of a group of people provided a map that, if followed, would guide someone to be a successful member of that group.

And some of those maps, over the centuries, seem to have transcended culture and geography to offer guidance for being successfully human, period. This seems especially true for one type of story: the hero’s tale. Joseph Campbell explored this theme in religious mythology with brilliance and depth in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and I’m indebted to his work. However, in exploring these story “maps” for clues to the characteristics that define leadership, I looked to more humble sources: the folk and fairy tales of many cultures. Campbell’s work focused on our highest aspirations; what we expect of gods and godlike heroes. I wanted to know something more practical: how folktales tell us what to look for and accept in those who lead us day to day.

Again, think of folk tales as “maps of success”—how to live as safely and happily as possible, how to avoid making fatal mistakes of belief or action. Until recently in our history as a race, choosing a leader was a life or death decision. A good leader could guide you to find food, overcome enemies, and keep peace within the society. A bad leader could lead you into starvation, or to death through war or lawlessness. And even though the stakes may not be as high today, we’re still wired to accept as leaders only those who line up with our centuries-old “map” of leadership attributes.

Drawing the Map

By finding and extracting these “leader maps,” I reasoned, I could learn not only what people look for in leaders, but the corollary of that: what it would take to be the kind of leader others would follow. And after reading hundreds of leader stories from all over the world, here’s what I discovered:

The Acknowledged Leader is:

  • Far-sighted
  • Passionate
  • Courageous
  • Wise
  • Generous
  • Trustworthy

Let me quickly overview the essence of each of these characteristics:

In the leader folktales, the leader-to-be can see beyond his current situation (young, poor, despised, etc.) to his ultimate goal (save his father, win the princess, kill the monster), and can express that vision in a compelling and inclusive way, especially to those whose help he needs to achieve it. He can hold to that vision and share it clearly even when others lose sight of it, believe it’s impossible, or ridicule him for trying. He is Far-sighted.

Moreover, the leader-in-training doesn’t just go through the motions. He is deeply committed to his quest. His every action is directed toward achieving it. Nothing dissuades him, even the inevitable setbacks and disappointments attendant on any quest. He may not be loud about it, but is relentless. He is Passionate.

Throughout the story, he is confronted with difficult situations. He may be afraid and lonely; he may feel like running away, longing for the comfort and safety of home. He often faces situations that are particularly trying for him personally. But he doesn’t turn aside; he doesn’t (unlike his brothers or others who attempt the same journey) make the safe and easy choices. He doesn’t wimp out and take the path of least resistance. He is Courageous.

He’s not a cardboard action hero, though. His brain is tested, and he must be able to learn from his mistakes. In many versions of the story, he doesn’t initially follow the advice given him (“don’t look back”; “don’t let go”; “don’t touch this or that on your way out”), and his mistakes create more complexity and danger. The next time a similar situation arises, though, he behaves differently and succeeds at his task. He doesn’t deny or whine or blame; he improves. He also often comes up with clever solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Finally, he uses his powers of discrimination to think through difficult choices and arrive at the best and most moral solution (e.g., long-term happiness vs. current riches; the greater good vs. pure self-interest). He is thoughtful, appropriately humble, clear-headed, and curious. He is Wise.

Along the way, the future leader meets people or creatures in need, and he helps them or shares with them. He does so even though his own supplies are low; even though helping them takes him out of his way or slows him down. In some versions of the story, he actually has to sacrifice his life for those he loves or to whom he owes his loyalty (this always turns out OK in the end). And later on, when he is king, his people are prosperous and happy because he rules with an open hand—the leader is not stingy, miserly, or selfish. He is Generous.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his word is his bond. If he tells his dying father he will find the magic potion to cure him, you know he will. If he tells the princess he will come back to marry her, she can send out the invitations. When some creature says to him, “If I help you, boy, you must free me,” you know the creature is as good as free. The hero does not equivocate or exaggerate. He is Trustworthy.

This tale survives and thrives in almost infinite permutations because it is satisfying; it feels right to us.

Excerpted from “Leading so People Will Follow”by Erika Andersen (Jossey-Bass, October 2012). All rights reserved.

Erika Andersen is a leadership coach; Forbes blogger; and the founder of Proteus International, a consulting, coaching, and training firm focused on leader readiness. Her new book, “Leading So People Will Follow,” published in October 2012.

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