Once Upon A Company: What Fairy Tales Can Teach You About Leadership

Stories don't just entertain us—they also teach and inspire us. Here's how to parse your kids' bedtime stories for modern leadership advice.

Once upon a time…

Even now, as adults, there’s something in most of us that perks up and starts to listen when we hear those words. We love stories. And stories have always served important functions for us. They bring us together and reinforce our sense of community. They engage, amuse, enthrall, and titillate. And they teach: throughout history, before most people could read and write, stories, told by firesides and in village gatherings, were the mechanism by which we handed down laws and values, religions and taboos, knowledge and wisdom.

Think of stories as the cultural DNA of a pre-literate society. The stories of a group of people provided a map that, if followed, would guide someone to be a successful member of that group.

And over the centuries, some of those maps seem to have transcended culture and geography to offer guidance for being successful humans. This seems especially true for one type of story: the hero’s tale. Joseph Campbell explored this theme in religious mythology with brilliance and depth in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I’m indebted to his work. However, in exploring these story maps for clues to the characteristics that define leadership, I looked to more humble sources: the folktales and fairy tales of many cultures. Campbell’s work focused on our highest aspirations; what we expect of gods and godlike heroes. I wanted to know something more practical: how folktales tell us what to look for and accept in those who lead us day-to-day.

Think of folktales as maps of success—how to live as safely and happily as possible, how to avoid making fatal mistakes of belief or action. Until recently in our history, choosing a leader was a life-or-death decision. A good leader could guide you to find food, overcome enemies, and keep peace within the society. A bad leader could lead you into starvation or to death through war or lawlessness. And although the stakes may not be as high today, we’re still wired to accept as leaders only those who line up with our centuries-old map of leadership attributes.

Drawing the Map

By finding and extracting these leader maps, I reasoned, I could learn not only what people look for in leaders but the corollary of that: what it takes to be the kind of leader whom others would follow. And after reading hundreds of leader stories from all over the world, here’s what I discovered:

The acknowledged leader is

  • Farsighted
  • Passionate
  • Courageous
  • Wise
  • Generous
  • Trustworthy
Here’s a quick overview of the essence of each of these characteristics:

In leader folktales, the leader-to-be can see beyond his current situation (young, poor, despised) to his ultimate goal (save his father, win the princess, kill the monster) and can express that vision in a compelling and inclusive way, especially to those whose help he needs to achieve it. He can hold to that vision and share it clearly even when others lose sight of it, believe it’s impossible, or ridicule him for trying. He is farsighted.

Moreover, the leader-in-training doesn’t just go through the motions. He is deeply committed to his quest, with his every action is directed toward achieving it. Nothing dissuades him, even the inevitable setbacks and disappointments attendant on any quest. He may not be loud about it, but is relentless. He is passionate.

Throughout the story, he is confronted with difficult situations. He may be afraid and lonely; he may feel like running away, longing for the comfort and safety of home. He often faces situations that are particularly trying for him personally. But he doesn’t turn aside; he doesn’t (unlike his brothers or others who attempt the same journey) make the safe and easy choices. He doesn’t wimp out and take the path of least resistance. He is courageous.

He’s not a cardboard action hero, though. His brain is tested, and he must be able to learn from his mistakes. In many versions of the story, he doesn’t initially follow the advice given him ("don’t look back"; "don’t let go"; "don’t touch this or that on your way out"), and his mistakes create more complexity and danger. The next time a similar situation arises, though, he behaves differently and succeeds at his task. He doesn’t deny or whine or blame; he improves. He also often comes up with clever solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Finally, he uses his powers of discrimination to think through difficult choices and arrive at the best and most moral solution (for example, long-term happiness versus current riches; the greater good versus pure self-interest). He is thoughtful, appropriately humble, clear-headed, and curious. He is wise.

Along the way, the future leader meets people or creatures in need, and he helps them or shares with them. He does so even though his own supplies are low; even though helping them takes him out of his way or slows him down. In some versions of the story, he has to sacrifice his life for those he loves or to whom he owes his loyalty (this always turns out OK in the end). And later, when he is king, his people are prosperous and happy because he rules with an open hand. The leader is not stingy, miserly or selfish. He is generous.

Finally, and perhaps most important, his word is his bond. If he tells his dying father that he will find the magic potion to cure him, you know that he will. If he tells the princess that he will come back to marry her, she can send out the invitations. When some creature says to him, "If I help you, boy, you must free me," you know the creature is as good as free. The hero does not equivocate or exaggerate. He is trustworthy.

This tale survives and thrives in almost infinite permutations because it is satisfying; it feels right to us. We are hardwired to expect our chieftains to be farsighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous, and trustworthy. If we don’t see these qualities clearly demonstrated, we won’t follow wholeheartedly; it feels dangerous to do so.

Related: What Leading With Vision Really Means and Don't Be A Power Hog: How Sharing Information, Time And Authority Makes You A Better Leader.

Find more leadership lessons in the Fast Company newsletter.

Excerpted from Leading so People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012) by Erika Andersen. All rights reserved.

Erika Andersen is a nationally known leadership coach and the founder of Proteus International, a consulting, coaching and training firm focused uniquely on leader readiness. She is the author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012).

[Image: Flickr user Joe Penniston]

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  • Simon Hodges

    I like very much the characteristics you draw, and think these are brilliant characteristics of leaders. Would enjoy seeing the fairytales you picked and how you arrived at these conclusions.

    For myself, I find you paint a picture of the leader as in control. If stories teach us anything, life is as you find it, and change comes from working with the forces at your disposal, being serving and kind and embodying a trust in intellect (which you do mention here).

    Many heroes are fools who are not trusted by their communities but see more sublimely into the heart of life - so better able to offer solutions when crises hit.

    Some never make it back to serve their communities. Their love of life or great misfortune takes them far away from the hallowed walls.

    I think that parsing the tales for signs of success might lead to a narrow reading of these tales. There is more there, and deeper meanings for leaders for draw, of more subtlety and richness. I think a better approach might be to equip leaders to evolve their ability to see into fairy stories - so they can think on a deeper more integrated level.

    Thanks so much for your article - it's really got me thinking.

  • Queen Beach Bum

    The reason for using story is to envoke imagination, stimulate the brain and get people thinking along different trains of thought. Totally agree with this piece, and if you want proof well it is out there! As for he/ she references, get over yourselves, apply where necessary stop seeking so much certainty. Thanks Erika, awesome writing.

  • Mary Jo Irmen

    What a great article.  Such a simple concept and we can have the fairy tale life :)

  • Mary Jo Irmen

    awesome article. I love it....such a simple concept to apply and have the fairy tale life ;)

  • Scholar, Ph.D.

    Another Ph.D. wieghing in, this time a Folklore & Mythology Ph.D. The author conflates myths and fairy tales (also called folk tales.) Campbell's work concerned only myth. In the eyes of many myth scholars (Campbell was not a scholar) Campbell's "mono-myth" erases the cultural context from the over-simplified structure he sketches. It also leaves out entirely the possibility for women to be heroic. When challenged to consider this, Campbell rejected the notion outright, calling women the prize that waits at home for the hero and the motivator for the journey.
    Fairy tales often have female protagonists who conquer difficulty by being physically brave (saving children from underworld demons), clever (princesses who outwit ogres and over-protective father-kings), kind (Beauty), hard-working (too many to count) and by exhibiting too many other good human qualities to mention in this short space.For another view, read work by Maria Tatar, Angela Carter, Christina Bacchilega, Yvonne Verdier, and -- most especially -- this book:  http://www.amazon.com/Fearless....

  • michael_webster

    I differ and think it is time to remove stories, and demand evidence from our story tellers.

    For most of our intellectual history, we have been at the mercy of forces of nature.  We made up stories as a way of exerting, even feebly, or controlling the effect of those forces.  Water witching provides perhaps the most obvious example.

    Most of the wisdom literature is in need of a re-write anyways, so less story telling and more genuine explanation.

  • Simon Hodges

    I quite agree Michael. Stories such as infinite growth, the Iraq War, the American Dream, Starbucks being a responsible business, not taking climate change seriously, betting on commodities as their mining further threatens ecosystems and biodiversity collapse reduces our ability to live. Indeed, let's remove these stories but keep the fairy tales - it was losing touch with them that led us into this mess in the first place.

  • Cinderella

    Great analogy in this article.  We have become so used to "that's the way it is..." when explaining things....when what we really want is to feel right about something.  The author is correct....fairy tales do make us feel good. 

  • Gregrrr

    dear elizabeth,

    do you have some kind of an inferiority issue, or why do you include your phd title in both your username and your signature?

  • husna

    It is a wonderfully written article that I can very much relate to. Thank you for taking the time to remind people to think beyond the situation in their roles as true leaders.

  • Elizabeth Carll, PhD

    While the article does a good job of explaining the perceived qualities necessary for leadership, it is also disappointing in that it exclusively equates leadership with males.  The  use of "he" and "his" pronouns throughout the article sends an unfortunate message about leadership.  It is also ironic that the author happens to be a woman. Hopefully, future articles will portray leadership as a human, rather than a male, quality.

    Elizabeth Carll, PhD

  • Amber Chand

     I totally agree and was indeed disappointed.  These are certainly attributes that are genderless. My focus in my work as a leadership coach has also been on the Heroine's Journey - in part seeking to explore ways in which women entrepreneurs can step into the archetype of the healer/warrior as they create sucessful businesses.