A Lesson in Value-based Leadership from Aesop’s Fables; The Two Travellers and the Apes

Aesop’s fables are a rich source of training materials and – as you may have noticed by now – one of my favoured ways of introducing a topic. This time, the topic is organisational values. Or as I prefer to call it, organisational ethics.

The fable is of the Two Travellers and the Apes.

Two men, one who always spoke the truth and the other who told nothing but lies, were traveling together and by chance came to the land of Apes. One of the Apes, who had raised himself to be king, commanded them to be seized and brought before him, that he might know what was said of him among men. He ordered at the same time that all the Apes be arranged in a long row on his right hand and on his left, and that a throne be placed for him, as was the custom among men.

After these preparations, he signified that the two men should be brought before him, and greeted them with this salutation: “What sort of a king do I seem to you to be, O strangers?’ The Lying Traveller replied, “You seem to me a most mighty king.” “And what is your estimate of those you see around me?’ “These,” he made answer, “are worthy companions of yourself, fit at least to be ambassadors and leaders of armies”. The Ape and all his court, gratified with the lie, commanded that a handsome present be given to the flatterer.

On this the truthful Traveller thought to himself, “If so great a reward be given for a lie, with what gift may not I be rewarded if, according to my custom, I tell the truth?’ The Ape quickly turned to him. “And pray how do I and these my friends around me seem to you?’ “Thou art,” he said, “a most excellent Ape, and all these thy companions after thy example are excellent Apes too.” The King of the Apes, enraged at hearing these truths, gave him over to the teeth and claws of his companions.

Organisational Ethics

I have just completed a very pleasant, rewarding week assisting the board of one of my favourite companies with their continued professional development. One of the topics was ethics, organisational ethics, otherwise taught as values in the business consulting fraternity.

To teach them about ethics, we completed a short exercise. The exercise comprised a case study of a board hiring a Chief Executive and choosing between two candidates. At each round, the case study was extended with new information about each candidate, some of which was rumour, some of which was portrayed as fact. Each director had to make a decision about hiring one of the two candidates. The news was constructed in such a way that the directors, based on the ethics variances of the general population, would change their stance at least once. By the time the exercise was over we established in this case, some directors believed in guilty until proven innocent, some additionally believed that rumours of a sexual harassment nature were worse than potential fraud and some believed the opposite.

What I had set out to do was to demonstrate that ethics are personal, that they exist in somewhat equal parts in the head and the heart and are shaped by our experiences – good and bad – and quite possibly, one day, we may find out by our DNA too. We cannot assume that in a company of 100 people, that the ethics of our colleagues will be the same as ours.

As the fable demonstrates, we cannot assume that telling the truth is more highly regarded than telling lies in all circumstances by all people (and in the fable, by the apes).

That is why it is important to define the organisation’s ethics. At a board of seven members with, say, 10 elements of organisational ethics to consider, we are likely to get seven different versions of our organisational ethics. Without deliberately considering and debating the ethics of the organisation, there will never be one single view of what drives our policy setting and decision making and our measures of performance related to attitude.

Aligning Decision Making

Defining our organisational ethics also allows us to help people align their decision making, based on their values, to arrive at decisions which also fit within the organisational ethics.

Organisations that try to have their people “Live the values of the organisation” are missing the point. I can’t control the values, but I can control the decisions I make.

It is not possible to retrofit my values to the organisational ethics in periods of time shorter than, say, five years. What I can do, if I know the organisation’s ethics, is ensure that the decisions that I make align with my values and the organisation’s ethics. If I can’t do that, then I can be certain that I should not be working for that organisation.

Aligning goals

What I can also do is to test to see if my personal goals can be aligned to the organisational goals. If my personal vision and mission are compatible with the organisation’s vision and mission, and I can make decisions true to my values that fit within the organisation’s code of ethics, I am truly in a place that I am unlikely to leave.


Organisational ethics should be defined, including those we regard as table stakes such as the value attributed to lying and not lying. They should not, however, be defined as one word or phrase of business speak. They should be written in sentences which, whilst short, are explanatory of the rule and the context of the ethic, and overseen by value-based leadership.

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