A fable or folk tale contains a moral lesson in a story format to be passed down from generation to generation within a family or a culture. I first encountered the Chinese folk tale of “The Empty Pot” on a social media post, albeit modified to reflect a CEO rather than an Emperor succession-planning theme. The story conveys a wonderful message about the value of courage, honesty and integrity. If you would permit me some poetic license to summarize:
The CEO was growing old and knew he needed someone to take over leading the company on its vision journey. He called all the young leaders of the firm together to announce his pending retirement. He informed the collection of highly talented individuals that he was going to choose from among them to succeed him. Each individual was then provided a special seed with the instructions, “Plant the seed, water and care for the seed and bring back what has grown from the seed one year from today.” At that time, he would judge the results and announce the next CEO.
Among the young leaders that day was Cynthia, who was well known in the company for being a prolific gardener. She would often share her excess tomatoes, peppers, sweet peas and zucchini with the office from the abundance of her harvest. She surely believed she had a good chance to win the contest.
Cynthia carefully planted the special seed in a pot with rich soil. She watered and cared for the seed, but nothing happened. All around her, though, other leaders planted seeds that quickly sprouted and grew. They laughed and teased Cynthia with her empty pot. Determined, she replanted her seed in a different pot with even better soil and fertilizer. Still, nothing grew.
The CEO entered and looked amazed and impressed by the foliage in the room. He then spotted Cynthia in the back of the room with the empty pot and ordered her forward. She was terrified. “He knows I’m a failure,” she thought. “Maybe he will have me fired!” When Cynthia presented her pot, the CEO asked her what had happened to her seed, and Cynthia told him her story. “I’m sorry. I tried and I tried to grow the seed you gave me but nothing came up.”
The CEO stroked his chin, smiled, then said to those gathered, “May I introduce you to your new leader. You see, the seeds I gave you a year ago were boiled so they would not grow – they were all dead. I’m not sure how the rest of you grew plants, but they didn’t grow from my seeds. Cynthia was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me an empty pot with my seed in it. Her integrity has earned her the opportunity to serve you as Chief Executive Officer.”
Upon reflection, this powerful, moral story reminds us that leaders often challenge others to determine moral fortitude when an individual or team is faced with difficult circumstances.
How did the individual handle the opportunity or responsibility assigned? Can I count on them to demonstrate integrity and show initiative, self-motivation, determination and a good attitude? What support do they need to handle the next step in their personal growth?
Many companies espouse a set of core values. Some take them seriously, while others treat them merely as words on the board room wall or on their website. At Andesa, we have come to understand that individuals within the company must honor and live the values in their daily walk for us to be successful. It is our responsibility, as fellow employee-owners, to create the environment to support each other in that daily challenge.
Speaking frankly, I would likely be tempted to present a colorful, healthy plant on inspection day.
While we like to think we always demonstrate integrity, when in pursuit of a lofty goal, our judgment is often affected by the end result to be achieved. With the pressures of growth and profitability, CEO’s may even rationalize their misdirected behaviors as values-based. After all, a CEO has to demonstrate courage, initiative and responsibility (all Andesa core values) for the company to be successful, right? I guess it dependents upon whether the end result was perceived as a healthy, thriving, vibrant plant or something delivered with integrity. Living into espoused values is hard work.
The story of The Empty Pot emphasizes the significance of one of Andesa’s principle beliefs: The Ends Never Justify the Means
When one starts with the end or result-first mindset, it is easy to rationalize the means taken to achieve the desired result. The end goals of growth and profitability can be used by a CEO to justify actions outside the rules of expected behavior – even if misinterpreting or rationalizing those behaviors as in alignment with their values. The Empty Pot serves to remind us that when one focuses on the means – the daily walk within our values – the result often takes care of itself.
Self-awareness and self-reflection are the tools we can use to guide our moral behavior.
Aware that I am prone to misinterpret Andesa’s espoused values from time to time, I keep a jar on my desk. Each time I catch myself falling short of living one of our values (or if someone else calls it to my attention), a dollar goes into the jar. The contents of the jar go to charity at the end of the year. This simple action serves to remind me of the importance of values in our corporate culture and our daily walk. It also cues me in daily to the responsibility of leadership to be “values purposed” with our actions and interactions.
Perhaps this story can help us reflect upon our purpose and the impact we make on others around us.
And, if you are wondering, how much money is in the jar? Don’t ask. Suffice it to say, a nice contribution will be made to a charity at the end of the year.