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.”
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.