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The Power of Persuasion (And Other Leadership Lessons): The Tale of the Prince and the Fish
When he was of age, King Hammurabi’s son was sent away to receive tutorship from the greatest leaders in his kingdom, to teach him what leadership is comprised of.
He sent him first to the General of his Eastern Army, General Abisare.
Over the years he gleaned valuable insight from the wise old General, and the following tale is one of his many lessons:
Before the sun had begun to show it’s face over the horizen, the Prince was woken up by the General. The sky was black, and it was cold in his room, although the fire blazed in the hearth.
General Abisare took the Prince on a short ride to the stream that flowed near the fortification.
‘This is your lesson’ he said. ‘Go down to the stream and catch us fish for our lunch.’
To Lead the People You Must Think Like the People
The Prince smiled as he hurried off to respect the General’s instruction.
‘This isn’t a lesson,’ he thought, ‘but at least we’ll get a good meal out of it!’
The Prince had loved to fish in his father’s lake, although the King's servants had always set him up for success. They would pull them in, one after the other, until evening set in. Surely catching fish in this stream would be easier!
So he ran down the bank and waded in, eagerly scanning the water for signs of fish.
After an hour or so he became discouraged; when he had fished with his father at the lake, the fishermen would entertain the King by pulling large fish from the water with their bare hands, but he could not even find a fish to pull out!
When he returned, the General sent him back with new instructions.
‘Find materials to hook the fish and pull it in – if you try to catch a fish with your bare hands we will starve.’
So the Prince rode back to the stream with a hook and a rope he found in the stables. He threw the hook out and yanked it back to shore quickly, hoping to snag a fish, but to no avail.
When he came back, the General again sent him out.
‘The fish are faster than your hook – bring them to you with bait. Use a thinner line or they’ll see that you're baiting them.’
So the Prince went out again, this time finding the thinnest strand of string he could find, and the tastiest bait he could think of. To his dismay, he still caught nothing.
‘What will I do?’ the Prince thought,
‘I can’t return again with no fish, he’ll think I’m a fool!’
So he sat down near the water to think of a plan.
‘Perhaps the fish don’t enjoy apples as much as I do' he mused, taking the apple off the hook.
As he thought about what to replace the apple with, he noticed an unfortunate grasshopper who had jumped into the stream, as it struggle to hop on the surface of the water. Before it could make any progress, a fish surfaced and gulped it down, quickly disappearing beneath the surface with its prize.
‘A bug!’ the Prince exclaimed, ‘A grasshopper will catch my fish!’
So he caught a grasshopper and baited his hook. It was only minutes before a fish grabbed the bait and was hooked, but when the Prince began to pull it in, the string broke!
‘The General was wrong’ the Prince muttered, and he rode back to tell him so.
When he gave his account, the General laughed.
‘You’re getting close young Prince; the rope was too thick and the line too thin. Have you visited the fishermen for supplies?’
The burning cheeks of the Prince showed that he hadn’t, and with a woeful sigh he rushed out of the door, his stomach growling hungrily.
The Success of Persuasion
The fisherman gave him a thin line braided from many strands of horse hair, and advised him to use a fishing hook that would not bend under weight.
The Prince thanked him and returned to the stream.
It was nearly evening when he arrived at the General’s hut, but he carried a basket heavy with freshly caught trout from the stream.
As the servants cooked the catch, the General questioned the Prince.
‘Now that you’ve successfully completed your lesson, what have you learned?’
The Prince smiled.
‘I’ve learned that General Abisare enjoys frustrating his pupils,’ the Prince pointed at his beard.
‘And that our lunch didn't come soon enough.’
The General frowned as he brushed the crumbs from his beard.
‘Young Prince, the lesson – what have you learned?’
Leadership Lessons Learned
The Prince grew solemn, dredging up the day’s activities in his mind.
‘I’ve learned that I can’t catch fish with force, but through the persuasion of their desire –specifically what they enjoy or want, not what I enjoy. I suppose that would translate to men as well?’
‘And I learned that there is a proper balance between strength and finesse. The rope was too blunt, and the string, too subtle. In my leadership I should act as the line braided from horse hair. I suppose that shows the strength of numbers as well – the many thin and weak strands comprised a line that was just as strong as the rope.’
‘Very good! – Continue.’
‘When... the apple didn’t work I watched the behavior of the fish in it’s habitat?’ he offered.
‘Good as well, but you're missing your greatest failure throughout the day, and strongest lesson of them all.’
The Prince tapped his fingers nervously on the table as he searched his mind for the answer, but nothing came.
‘What is it Master?’ he asked.
‘Don’t be discouraged; you’ve learned well. Over a single fishing trip you learned that men are not best lead by force, but by persuasion, and that you must bring them something they value enough to come to you.
When you learned that the rope was too blunt, and when your thin line snapped, you learned that you must have a balance between your blunt speech and subtle actions; leading in this manner is not deceitful, but if your men see the line, they may construe your actions as such.
Finally, the lesson you missed: You dove into your task with commendable diligence, but you relied on your own knowledge despite having minimal experience. You only found success when you received the counsel of the fisherman, who has fished his entire life.
Like the braided fishing line, your ability is compounded and magnified by the strength of those you surround yourself with; never underestimate the value of expert advise.’