The One You Feed

There’s a well-known legend about two wolves:

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Photo Credit: All About Wolves

Similarly in organizations, there is a fight, visible as two competing worlds. One world is founded on human interaction as a contest between weak and strong; the other based on a community inspired by “transcendent values.”


We are all a party to that fight.

In most organizations I’ve known, leaders endeavor to speak from the world of transcendent values. And they believe in them. But they often also find that at some level they must deal with the other world, focused as it is on strength and weakness, on power without any particular moral code.

That war hurts us all. A friend in financial services, for example, was approached by a powerful client who wanted my friend to misrepresent the client firm’s performance in a way that broke the law. She had to decide whether to do the work or throw away a client who represented massive income, reputation, and opportunity. After some sleepless nights, her sense of integrity won out. There was no way she culd do what she was being asked. Predictably the client went away angry — as if he had a right to such service — and who was my friend anyway to deny him what he wanted?

But that’s an obvious case. The subtler ones don’t bring us to such clear decisiveness. For example, the executive who knows he has someone working for him that engages in artful retaliation, but who struggles with what to do about it since the business results keep coming in. The petty wars between leaders and their departments in a health care organization that ought to be focused on their common life-saving mission. The behind-the-scenes change efforts and the consultants hired to make the recommendations they’ve been told to make, reinforcing executives’ perceptions rather than challenging a destructive paradigm. These are more difficult skirmishes in the war, perhaps because they seem so minor. But they are, of course, exactly what keeps the war going.

This is why we need the elders.

I think it is unfortunate that nationally, when we look for those elders, positive ones, ones that know how to feed the world of transcendent values, we often come up short. Perhaps that will change with time. In the corporate world, it is sometimes hard to find the models because the apparent models turn out to be different than we imagined. They nourish the wrong wolf, endorse the wrong world. I think of this famous, purported leader and his suggestion that it’s a good idea to fire the “bottom” 10 percent of performers each year. And if a manager refuses or has a hard time with this assignment out of integrity, that manager should then also become part of the 10 percent that is terminated. This is tantamount to a gang environment. I’ve known a few managers who worked for him. Believe me, their stories have not been particularly laudatory of the organization or of the leader himself, but then, perhaps, they were part of that “bottom” 10%.

This is why we need the elders. Their presence personally reminds us which wolf to feed, which world to inhabit. They have that not-so-subtle thing called a moral vision, which is not to say a righteous one, but just an enlarged, human view that there is more to business and to life than being clever, strong, and “winning.” Instead, somehow they lift us to see the possibilities, believe in us, help us do incredible things together, even when the stress is high, and the time and the money are short. They convey the importance of learning and, especially, of doing the right thing, and they are willing to sort that out through conflict because “the right thing” is often not so easy to determine in a group. They help us understand that we are, after all, in only one world, share only one ship, and we choose together which one.

They don’t think for us. They think for themselves and they help us and encourage us to think for ourselves, too. They see our importance more than they see their own. In this way they engender that most precious quality called — respect.

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  • Excellent article. Thank you. I heard a piece of the “2 wolf” story this morning and I went looking for the rest of it. But the remainder of the article was worth reading too. I’ve often thought about doing what you do (coaching, public speaking, etc.) But I have some personal “stuff” to work out first. Take care and don’t forget to feed the correct wolf.

  • Thank you, James. I’m glad you found what you were looking for here and a little more. Good luck to you and congratulations for all your “moves” to work through that personal stuff. Perhaps that is the stuff of your own leadership in a way and where you are seeing most acutely your part in the wolves’ fight.

  • […] The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.” – Unfolding Leadership […]

  • Thanks for the ‘rest of the story’. I was looking for this tale and I found your site. As a director I sometimes forget the nurturing responsibility that I have and tend to focus on the things that are missing rather than the effort that goes into what’s there already. It somehow seems easier to focus on the negative than to promote the positive. Again, thanks.

  • Bruce

    Your words are much appreciated. Yes, it does often seem easier to “focus on the things that are missing.” Just so, I believe the story is saying that is when the dark wolf is fed. So I guess the question is why is that the easier wolf to feed? I think it is one of the dar wolf’s finest tricks to make us think somehow the dark, “missing” is more real than the light.

    Thank you for stopping by!

  • As Calvin Miller says in his book titled The Trilogy, “Hate dresses well to please the buyer.”
    And he goes on to state, “How do you manage to make them cherish all this nothingness?”
    the World hater states, “I simply make them feel embarrassed to admit that they are incomplete. A man would rather close his eyes than see himself as your Father-Spirit does. I teach them to exalt their emptiness and thus preserve the dignity of man.”
    Jesus states, “They need the dignity of God.”
    The World Hater states, “You tell them that. I sell a cheaper product.”

    I say, “It is scary isn’t it?”

  • This is a wonderful post Dan.

    I’ve read the wolf story before although i can’t recall where I’ve heard it before that the moment.

    I loved the contrasts in your chart. For me, it clearly represents various themes between the old world and the new world, between personality and soul qualities, between the ego and our true selves.

    We can see these themes throughout history and into the present age. We also experience them internally, which you’ve so succinctly shared here in your post. Fortunately, more and more of humanity seems to be shifting away from the more polarizing and dualistic thinking; black and white, either/or, win/lose, etc. And recognizing the journey within ourselves as we ‘wrestle’ between our own dual forces and nature.

    From win/lost mentality to collaboration.

    The energy balance between doing and being and that being is what leads to the doing.

    From manipulation to allowing without feeling one’s own power is being threatened or diminished.

    Dependence/independence shifting towards interdependence.

    Understanding the unity in our diversity.

    Learning how to be inclusive rather then exclusive.


    It’s all a journey. For each of us. One day my ‘being’ may be firmly seated on the soul quality side of the house and the next, the personality quality might rear it’s head depending on what has triggered it.

    It’s a journey of ever-increasing awareness and consciousness. An expanding ability to notice this duality within ourselves when it happens. The more difficult challenge is in how we respond to it when it happens.

    Fortunately, we can all serve to help one another to integrate these aspects of ourselves. I love what you are doing in the world.

  • Dear Samantha~

    I love how you’ve expanded the list — and the thought — of integration. If only it was so simple as two wolves “out there,” instead of the reality that from day to day we are both wolves, and their relationship to one another is complex. You have such a beautiful way, Samantha, of conveying the needed sense of acceptance, which offers hope and provides the confidence that we will know which wolf to feed.

    All the best

  • Thank you for the additional insights my friend. Always appreciate your point of view.

    A couple of days back I commented on another blog about how fragile and vulnerable we are in the midst of relationship. Regardless of the nature or dynamics and compared it to a dance. I shared how I would just LOVE to bypass the clumsiness of the early stages and jump straight into ‘instant knowing’. And life just doesn’t work that way. We often have to go through the stepping on each others toes while we learn to dance together. It doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic relationship, or two female friends, business partners, or between boss and employees.

    And you are right. We ALL have these dual wolves natures within us. It doesn’t serve me or anyone very well trying to deny it. It’s there. It can war within at any time. And clash with the wolves in others.

    Can we stay AWAKE in love to one another when this happens? That’s another element. Can we reach that place in our consciousness where we can notice it when it happens and bring it to light and then engage together with it from that new information and awareness?

    That’s my desire/intention in my relationships. There doesn’t have to be any love LOST or diminishing in power when we notice, accept, and openly share our own ‘dark wolf’ with one another.

    Although this may feel initially terrifying to do or even feel counter-intuitive, I sense that it is from this space that we can actually build GREATER trust. By not hiding it when it happens but sharing it.

    Even if it’s as corny as saying….’I feel threatened when ‘this’ happens’ Or ‘I struggle with trust and WANT to trust you, but my insides are telling me to be cautious…can you be patient with me as we build trust together?’ etc etc

    Always love your posts and insights Dan.


  • @Samantha

    I really appreciate how you are translating the story into the practice of relationship. Working toward that point of being able to bring the wolves to awareness and speech rather than pretending they are not there is so important for any long-term connection. I feel I’ve personally been very lucky in this regard, and yet there’s always more room to grow. To acknowledge the dark wolf is not easy, maybe never easy. Our imperfections are with us. And personally, I am always a little wary when someone suggests they have the dark wolf fully in control!

    Thanks again, Samantha for your so thoughtful insights and observations!


  • I have yet to know anyone who has successfully brought their dark wolf fully under control! : )

    I know I certainly haven’t.

    If we deny that there is any dark within us, how can our lights shine brighter? How can we truly empathize and serve others if we deny our own dark sides?

    That said, it is generally easier to acknowledge our own dark sides in the presence of caring and compassionate people. (non-shamers comes to mind drawing from your most recent post on shame)

    BTW: A few years back I picked up John Bradshaw’s book – Overcoming the Shame that Binds You. It was the first major resource I found on the topic of core shame. It was loaded with tips on ‘coming out’ and how to deal with it. One of it was addressing how fragile people are especially in the early stages of healing from shame and how important it is to be in healing groups where people have enough of a handle on their own shame that they won’t intentionally shame others.

    Here on the internet, it’s far more difficult for people healing from shame to avoid being bombarded by shame messages coming from so many directions and sources. Ample ‘trigger’ opportunities…

  • Samantha~

    Your words are resonant. They reflect what I, too, believe and attempt to embody in all my work. Creating safety for one another is essential to our mutual healing and liberation. Bradshaw’s book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, is a classic, and I’d recommend it to anybody who has come to recognize how toxic shame is playing out in their life.

    I love your own writings and know that you have much to contribute to this complicated discussion of shame. I had not considered that the internet is full of “triggers,” but you are so right about that — worth a post or two of your own, perhaps?

    All the best, and thank you for such a wonderful dialogue.


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