Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Parable of the Three Stonecutters

The idea of leadership is often related to management roles or senior positions. The thinking is management training, and postgraduate qualifications can help acquiring leadership qualities. In fact, many MBA programmes are promoted that way. The curricula taught in these courses are developed around administrative tasks and business processes. It is true learning them will help in running a business or heading a section, but will not make you a leader. 

The notion of a leader is the same as that of a shepherd. A shepherd, almost always, is mentioned in the context of looking after his or her sheep. We often refer to ‘the shepherd leading the sheep’ or ‘the sheep following the shepherd’. Likewise, a leader is one who has “followers”. If one claims to be a leader, the obvious question to ask is ‘who are you leading’ or ‘who is following you’.

Social media websites have modelled the idea of leadership. For example, your Twitter account offers a simple indication of leadership in the number of “followers” and “followings” you have. The number of friends on Facebook seems to give people a sense of connectedness until that becomes ridiculously large like 500 and 800 friends. If you had initiated the majority of friends on Facebook, which is somewhat the natural thing to do but you are merely following others.
As you can see, leadership is a trait that is evident in the way we deal with others. When people who lack this quality take up leadership or management roles, they become taskmasters and box-tickers. Let me explain how to spot a leader with my rendition of the parable of the three stonecutters, popularised by Peter Drucker. A famous builder built a palace for a king with cut stones. The king liked his work so much that he wanted all the official building to have the cut stone finish. The builder received more contracts from the king and his business flourished. He wanted to appoint one of the stonecutters to oversee the rest. He got a friend to help him find the right stonecutter. The friend went to the site and came across the first stonecutter and asked, “what are you do?”. The first stonecutter said, “I am cutting this stone” point to the stone in his hand. The friend replied, “I can see that, and you are doing a good job”. After a space of silence, not able to get anything more, the friend carried on to the next stone-cutter working a short distance away. He asked the second stonecutter, “what are you doing?” The second stonecutter replied saying, “I am earning my wage for the day”. The friend replied, “Oh, I see” which started the second stonecutter off ranting and raving about his work and family. At the least, the friend learnt something about this stonecutter. The friend carried on looking for the next stonecutter. On seeing the third stonecutter, he went up to him and asked, the same question, “what are you doing?”. The third stonecutter replied without taking his eyes off the stone he was working on, “building a castle”. Having heard a rather different answer from the previous two stonecutters, the friend asked, “what do you mean?”. The third stonecutter placed the tool down, with glee replied, “Our King deserves a castle and the best one in the world. We will fly our flag over the castle, and that will make us proud of our king and land”. The decision was obvious; the third stonecutter was made the head of the stonecutters.
The third stonecutter was made the head because he had the big picture before him. He was passionate and interested in the well-being of others. What differentiated him from the rest was his outlook. A simple question “what are you doing?” identified the leadership trait in him. The second stonecutter was self-centred, none would want to follow him. The first stonecutter knew his job well but was short-sighted as far as the big picture was concerned, perhaps he would be a good player to have on the team. In life, we come across all three types of stonecutters taking up leadership positions. Imagine having each of them as your boss. The first stonecutter would be a taskmaster, focused on ticking boxes. Working for him will be stressful. The second will be toxic to the environment – find a new job. If you have the third stonecutter as the boss, every day will be a pleasure going to work.
Next time at work, ask yourself “what are you doing?” to find out whether you are cut-out to be a leader.

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