Cats and Execution: A Leadership Lesson from Aesop


Cats are popular on the Web these days. There are cat quotes, T-shirts with cats, blogs by cats, and, of course, funny cat videos. I doubt that this is because so many people like cats per se; I suspect, rather, it’s because people are drawn to stories about animals and find it oddly easy to relate to them.

Aesop, the ancient Greek writer of fables, was well aware of animals’ appeal. His very brief stories, written to convey what today we might call “best practices,” typically feature one or more animals learning (or failing to learn) a lesson or solving (or failing to solve) a problem. The fables, along with their morals, stick in the mind. As Aesop knew, we are very likely to remember a 2-minute story about a thirsty-yet-innovative crow who puts pebbles into a pitcher so he can reach the water; much less likely to remember a 60-minute presentation on methods for thinking outside the box.

Now I’m a fan of many business books, but I’m an even greater fan of Aesop’s fables as vehicles for business wisdom. Consider this example: A few years ago I co-authored a leadership book called Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution (Harvard Business Press). It’s a good book, if I do say so myself; it’s filled with interesting research, useful tools, and compelling business examples that show you how to execute strategies and initiatives rapidly. But, as a guide to execution, I don’t think it’s quite as good as an Aesop fable called “Belling the Cat.” 

The Story: A group of mice call a meeting to figure out how to free themselves of their terrifying enemy, the Cat. After many ideas are considered and rejected, a young mouse gets up and suggests that all they have to do is hang a bell around the Cat’s neck, for when they hear the bell ringing they’ll know the Cat is coming and they’ll have time to run away. Everyone agrees that this is a marvelous plan and that their troubles are over. But in the midst of the celebration, an old mouse steps forward and says: “I agree; the young mouse’s plan is very good. Let me just ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?

The Moral (per Aesop): It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.

It seems to me this brief fable is just as likely to improve a leader’s ability to execute as any contemporary 200-page business book. Why? Because it’s a story.  It’s short and memorable.  And … it’s about a cat.

You can find most of Aesop’s fables here–more than 650 of them, with their morals.  Which one is your favorite? And which ones do you think have the best lessons for leaders?

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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