The Leader and The Donkey

A Leadership Fable

There once was an old man, a boy, and a donkey traveling across the country side.

As the old man rode the donkey, passersby would say, “Isn’t it a pity how the old man rides that donkey while making the boy walk beside him?”

The man and the boy considered their words and decided they should switch and the boy rode the donkey instead. Sometime later, onlookers pointed and complained, “How can that boy make the old man walk while he sits proudly atop that donkey?”

Thinking these complaints valid, the boy and the old man determined instead to both walk alongside the donkey. Bystanders then exclaimed, “What fools that boy and the old man are to waste the opportunity to ride a beast of burden.”

Hearing truth in their words, both the old man and the boy took their perch on the donkey and rode it together. Outraged, spectators protested, “How can such cruelty exist where that man and boy take advantage of such a poor animal?”

Finally, knowing nothing left for them to do, the boy and old man raised the donkey upon their shoulders and carried it along the road until reaching a narrow bridge. There they lost their grip, dropped the donkey which fell to the water and drowned in the river below.

This fable is one frequently used to warn leaders of the trap of attempting to make everyone happy. Not only is it not possible but by trying to do so, not only do you lose your way but eventually you may do something stupid resulting in disaster.

And when read, everyone immediately relates to the old man or the boy. But today, I challenge you to look at this story differently.

Far too often, you will find yourself less like the old man or the boy, but rather as the various spectators endlessly commenting on others work or as the donkey helplessly going along with whatever it is happening around you.

Notice the spectators do nothing more than complain and comment, having an endless list of issues they point out about others but they do nothing to fix the situation.

No solutions, only issues.

And all they ever know are their opinions and their complaints, which they are certain are valid and correct, yet they don’t know what eventually happened down the road as a result of their protestations. They don’t realize they contributed to the eventual disaster that subsequently occurred. They only know their certainty of their view and moved on without adding positive value.

How often to you do this as a leader? Do you really understand and appreciate what the ripple effect is that you cause? Have you asked?

Worse yet is the donkey, the aimless victim of circumstance. Again, how many times have you simply resigned yourself to what you believe is the reality around you even if you see potential disaster looming ahead? You may recognize this in others – they are those who are completely disengaged at work and often referred to as “the walking dead” – but do you recognize it in yourself, your words, your actions, and most importantly your feelings about what you are doing?

So as you reflect, realize throughout each day, you likely become all of these characters in different situations – the boy, the old man, the spectators and the donkey – and ask yourself, how you can be different and not contribute to the impending disaster ahead, but take charge, provide solutions and create a new reality.

by Todd A Fonseca 


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3 thoughts on “The Leader and The Donkey

  1. Tosha :o)!

    What a great story that is meaningful at the core, hit me at just the right spot ;o)
    Looking forward to reading your future posts and being hit with nuggets of Leadership knowledge. I really like the premise of the site – looking forward to learning more. Cheers~

    • toddfonseca

      Thank you Tosha for your kind words!

  2. Marleen

    I like how this story can apply to the different roles people play at different times – including spectator. Sometimes it can be about taking care of the Donkeys (victim of circumstance) and each other by encouraging them do what they do best.
    It isn’t always clear what the ripple effect of our actions are – even when we look for it. Feedback from others is very helpful. This is a great story to share!

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