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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