7 Leadership Fables Every Leader and Manager Should Read

Written by Professional Academy guest blogger Nicki Hayes

Why ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ works: the power of positive storytelling

Fables have existed ever since humans first learned to communicate. Ancient civilisations used them. Future civilisations will too.  Why? Because fables use the power of story to ‘show’, rather than ‘tell’, truths in ways that are immediately acceptable, forever memorable and easily scalable.

Many of us associate fables with the classroom. They are being increasingly used within the training room too. And why not? How else could you absorb learning so memorably and so quickly? You would have to read a tome of management publications, enrol on a host of courses and make an awful lot of mistakes on the job to learn the lessons within just one of the fables summarised below, let alone all seven. So here they are, 7 of the very best fables every leader and manager should read during their career ...

1. Optimize Your Strengths, James Brook, Dr Paul Brewerton.

Finalist in the 2016 International Book awards

This new fable uses a novel technique to share a proven methodology for helping leaders put their strengths to work and get the best out of themselves and their teams.

 It follows the story of Jo, a recently appointed leader in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of the recruitment industry, who hits a crisis point (due to the not unrelated pressures of a struggling marriage and work overwhelm). Turning to a strengths coach, Jo is led to realise how his deficit-based mindset is trapping him on a self-limiting path. Learning to understand his key strengths, and how to use them to stay on a positive path, Jo regains control.

 With a clever device in the form of Joe’s own learning journal embedded into the end of each chapter, as well as models and exercises included within the body and in the appendix, this title is grippingly realistic and practical.

 Learning Log:

  1.  Understand your strengths (what you’re good at that gives you energy). Align them with your values, aspirations and abilities.
  2. Adopt the four Stretch Leadership Habits: sharing vision, sparking engagement, executing and sustaining progress.
  3.  Create a road map detailing stretch goals, success measures and enabling strengths. Ensure everyone is aligned with these goals and their strengths contribute.
  4. Recruit across the full spectrum of strengths. Align people’s strengths with their roles, give them a clear vision – a reason to be passionate about their work.
  5. Choose the path of possibility. The path of limitation is unproductive and drains your energy. The path of possibility gives a sense of power and enhances energy.
  6. Focus on strengths whilst addressing performance risks caused by limiting weaknesses, strengths in overdrive and sources of interference. Moderate your own strengths and call on the strengths of others when facing these risks. Be disciplined about stuff that doesn’t energize you but that needs to be done. Focus on the benefits of doing these parts of your job to ensure risks don’t derail you.
  7. Stretch is a continuous journey. It revolves around the stages of aspiration, awareness, action, agility and achievement. Choose to take this journey. Stretch creates positive energy. Stretch sustains progress.

2: Fish! Dr Stephen Lundin, John Christensen and Harry Paul, with Philip Strand.

 “Imagine a workplace where everyone brings energy, passion and a positive attitude to the job every day. Imagine an environment in which people are truly connected to their work, their colleagues, and their customers.” So invite the authors on this fishy fable’s jacket. Explore within and you’ll discover a blueprint for delivering exactly this.

 In this parable, a fictional manager is charged with turning a chronically unenthusiastic and unhelpful department into an effective team. Across the street from her office is Seattle's very real Pike Place Fish Market, world famous and wildly successful thanks to its fun, joyful atmosphere and customer service. By applying simple lessons learned from the actual Pike Place fishmongers, our manager learns how to energize those who report to her and effect an astonishing transformation in her workplace.

 Addressing issues including employee retention and burnout Fish! offers profound wisdom that is easy to apply.

 Learning Log

  1. Fish! is not a programme. Fish! is a philosophy. Always invite people to engage at and with their work; never tell them to.
  2. Truly ‘Fishy’ engagement is usually started by one courageous person within an organization, not from an order issued from above (as evidenced by its sequel Fish! Tales – a set of real life case studies of organizations following the Fish! philosophy.
  3. People leave two legacies: what they do and who they are while they are doing it

3: The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Patrick Lencioni.

 In this follow-up to his best-selling The Five Temptations of a CEO, Patrick Lencioni focuses on a leader's crucial role in building a healthy organization. The reader’s focus is on trying to work out what the four obsessions are that the extraordinary executive discovers, distils and keeps on a piece of paper on his desk.

 It is a story of corporate intrigue. The frustrated head of one consulting firm faces a leadership challenge so great that it threatens to topple his company. Meanwhile, the extraordinary executive heading up the competitive consultancy across the road faces a leadership challenge from a new recruit. This recruit slipped the net of the not-so-extraordinary-any-more executive’s recruitment policy. An act of treachery leads to his departure. He leaves with a copy of the four disciplines, which, of course, he instantly shares with the other consultancy’s head.

 And guess what? The truth behind the extraordinary executive’s extraordinariness is his very ordinariness. He must have read Fish!

 Learning Log

 The four disciplines to create organizational health are:

  • Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team
  • Create organizational clarity
  • Overcommunicate organizational clarity
  • Reinforce organizational clarity

I especially recommend reading this if you are reflecting on recruitment. There are some great questions to ensure you hire and retain the right fit.

4: Who Moved My Cheese? Dr Spencer Johnson.

 Who Moved My Cheese? is about choosing your attitude to change. It uses two mice, ‘Sniff’ and ‘Scurry’, and two “Littlepeople”, ‘Hee’ and ‘Haw’ to do so. They are in a maze facing an uncomfortable truth: their never-ending cheese supply has – gulp -- ended.

 What will they do?

 You’ll have to read it to find out, but it’s easy to see why so many organizations give this title to all their employees to help create a shared language for dealing with change.

 The book starts with a group of old school friends meeting at a reunion. One shares the Who Moved my Cheese? parable. They discuss the parable. This discussion cleverly enables readers of all learning styles to understand the metaphor.

Learning Log

 To deal with change:

  1.  Accept it happens.
  2. Anticipate it.
  3. Monitor it.
  4. Adapt quickly to it.
  5. Change.
  6. Enjoy change.
  7. Repeat.

5: The New One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard, Spencer Johnson, MD.

 As compelling as the 30 year-old original, this parable of a young man looking for an effective manager has been updated to ensure its continuing relevance.

 Though less fluid than best-selling, well-loved parables sold on shelves other than ‘management books’, such as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, it follows a similar, familiar story arc and is, perhaps because of this, easy to remember.

 Classic, concise, easy-to-read: this fable reveals three leadership secrets, as recorded below.  

 Learning Log

  1.  Set one minute goals: write each on a single page with a due date; take one minute to review most important goals, daily; ask “does my behavior match my goal”; if not – take action.
  2. Give one minute praisings: praise new people/people doing new tasks, ASAP; spend 30 seconds telling them what – specifically – they did right; pause; spend 25 seconds encouraging them to do more of the same.
  3. Give one minute re-directs (when people don’t perform to plan): confirm facts and review mistake together – be specific; express how you feel about the mistake; pause; tell them they’re better than the mistake; remind them you have confidence and trust in them and will support them. 

6: Our Iceberg is Melting: John Kotter, Holger Rathgeber.

Our Iceberg is Melting is based on a proven 8-step change programme. A simple fable about doing well in an ever-changing world, it shares the story of a penguin colony faced with an unexpected claim by a little known penguin. The claim, of course, is: “Our iceberg is melting!”

Most of the colony sneer at Fred, the quiet but observant scout who detects worrying signs that their home is melting.  Fred must somehow convince the leadership team if he is to save the colony. He does, eventually, and the ongoing story brings to life the underlying method, memorably.

Simple, explanatory material follows the fable, adding value by clarifying meaning (making it accessible to all learning styles) and encouraging readers to reflect on how it relates to their lives.

Learning Log:

To lead positive change:

  1.  Create a sense of urgency
  2. Put a carefully selected group in charge of dealing with the change
  3. Create a sensible vision of a better future
  4. Communicate that vision so that others understand and accept it
  5. Remove as many obstacles as practical
  6. Create some sort of success – quickly!
  7. Never let up until the new way of life is established
  8. Ensure stubborn traditions do not sabotage the new way of life

7: The Tao of Coaching, Max Landsberg

The premise is simple: to become an effective coach, you need master only a few techniques; mastery requires practice. Each chapter follows Alex, a senior manager, on his journey towards a board position by focusing on a golden coaching rule.

Tried and tested by generations, this book reiterates many of the eternal truths shared in previous titles.

Learning Log

There are 20 Golden Rules of coaching. Most are obvious. Here’s one that seems obvious, but for which the fable provides new frameworks, bringing the psychology of hope to goal setting:

  • Become eloquent in the language of setting goals: set ‘process’, ‘performance’ and ‘outcome’ goals using the GROW (Goal; Reality; Options; Wrap up) method.

So, there you go: 7 leadership fables to read if you want to get ahead in your career. I’ve recently re-read all seven in less than two days. I’ll carry their learning with me for life.

What do you feel colleagues might benefit from reading? Let us know. We’d love to share your recommendations in future posts.

Professional Academy offer a range of Management & Leadership Training as both bespoke in-company training with the option of accredited CMI qualification pathways and management & leadership qualifications for individuals looking to progress in their management career. Why not contact us today to see if we can help you with your personal development as a manager and a leader?