Leadership Lessons: The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Leader Who Cancelled Meetings

In the bustling realm of the corporate world, leadership is often likened to a shepherd guiding his flock, ensuring their well-being, and steering them toward success. However, just as a shepherd’s credibility hinges on his trustworthiness, so too does a leader’s influence rest upon their commitment to their team.

In Aesop’s classic fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a young shepherd used to take his flock of sheep to the hill to graze on the fresh green grass. Sitting idle watching his sheep graze all day, he felt bored. Suddenly, he got an idea to overcome his boredom and cried out, “Wolf! Wolf!” Hearing his cries, the villagers came running with sticks to his rescue. But to their dismay, the boy laughed at them and there was no wolf.

Again after a few days, he cried out, “Wolf! Wolf!” and the villagers again came running up the hill only to find that the shepherd boy had fooled them again. The next day when his flock of sheep were grazing, he suddenly saw a wolf. He cried out aloud “Wolf! Wolf!” But, no one came to rescue his sheep. The shepherd boy returned home crying without his sheep. The wolf had taken away one of his sheep and the rest of the flock fled during the melee. Hence, goes the moral of the story, a liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth.

This tale reminds us of the importance of trust and integrity in the context of leadership. When a leader repeatedly cancels commitments or fails to follow through on promises, they erode the trust and confidence of their team. Employees begin to question the leader’s integrity and commitment, leading to disengagement, disappointment, and a diminished sense of loyalty.

The story of the business leader in a large Indian multinational mirrors the fable’s central theme. In March, when it was time to reflect on the year gone by and identify goals for the new financial year, the head of a large business unit of the company came up with a commendable idea. Wanting himself to be a true people leader and have his ears on the ground, he had announced his plan to connect with at least 10 employees every week from his 3000+ strong business unit. The business unit’s HR Lead was excited about this people initiative and put out a detailed plan for the next 3 months, meticulously identifying the participants from the unit for each week, blocking meeting rooms sending calendar invites, and following up with the participants to ensure attendance.

In the beginning, the leader’s enthusiasm was palpable, and the meetings were well-received. However, the initial excitement gave way to disappointment as the leader started canceling meetings, thrice in a row, without citing any reasons. In one such instance, the employees located in a different office, braved heavy rains to travel and meet their leader, only to find that the meeting was canceled last minute. The leader was not sensitive enough to just say hello as a courtesy even though the employees were just seated in the meeting room beside his cabin.  

The HR Lead and his team, acting as the intermediary between the leader and the disappointed employees, faced the brunt of their frustration. The leader’s cancellations not only undermined the initiative’s credibility but also eroded trust and confidence in his commitment to connecting with the workforce. Employees, feeling let down and disheartened, began questioning the sincerity of the leader’s intentions.

The three cancellations had already tested the patience of the employees. When the next meeting was scheduled, no one turned up. The damage was done – the leader who cried wolf had lost the trust of his workforce. This situation holds crucial lessons for leaders in any organization. Being consistent and honoring commitments is key to the success of leadership.  Leaders might have hundreds of conflicting priorities but being transparent in their communications and having respect for others’ time and efforts is a must. The echoes of canceled meetings should prompt leaders to reflect on their actions and ensure they do not become the leaders who cried wolf.

Questions to reflect

  1. How can leaders cultivate a culture of trust and accountability within their teams?
  2. What strategies can leaders employ to effectively manage conflicting priorities and ensure they honor their commitments?
  3. How can HR professionals support leaders in upholding their commitments and maintaining employee trust?

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