The Emperor’s New Clothes is a short tale about a vain emperor obsessed with fancy clothes and how he looks. One day, two weavers promised to make him a royal robe that cannot be seen by those unfit for their positions. When the robe was finished, the two weavers pretended to put the robe on the emperor. No one around the emperor, including the emperor himself, were willing to admit that they cannot see the robe, and went along with the pretense. One day, in a royal parade, a child in the crowd too young to understand the pretense, cried out, “the emperor is naked!” With the pretense shattered, the crowd began to cry out the same, setting up for a rather embarrassing ending.
This story may be a children’s fable, but its modern parallels are being played out in the corporate world. Below are some of the warnings from the story to leaders.
The emperor was obsessed with his appearance, and was unwilling to acknowledge the truth (invisible robe) fearing that others may see him as unfit to lead. Corporate leaders may encounter similar situations where the truth reflect poorly on them; instead of acknowledging the truth and learning from it, some leaders choose to spin the truth to avoid backlash. This story is a warning to leaders who spin the truth: people may go along with your pretense, but nobody is fooled.
The cunning weavers, probably for personal reasons, convinced the emperor to do something ill-advised by promising him a robe that will make him special. In the corporate world, a leader’s desire to be special may lead him to take unwise actions. Beware of those around you who may manipulate you and situations to get what they want.
It’s funny that those close the emperor didn’t said anything to him when he was naked. The reason for the silence was fear, common in the corporate world. A high-ranking leader can be so unapproachable that her followers feel that they cannot communicate the truth without repercussion, so they choose silence. Leaders should foster a culture of openness and integrity, not surround themselves with “Yes” men, but pay attention to those who are silent, as they may have something say.
The Innocent Child
The story climaxed when an innocent child blurted out, “the emperor is naked!” With all the pretense, this is the first time someone spoke the truth. Today, the child would be equated to a whistle-blower, someone who had enough of the false pretense and decided to tell it like it is. Whistle blowing is the last thing any high-ranking leader wants to see, as it leads to public scrutiny and potential embarrassment. To prevent public whistle blowing is to provide channels for followers to identify wrongs without repercussion. The goal is to catch and solve problems before they get out of control.
After the child cried out, “the emperor is naked!”, the crowd realized the pretense is broken, and began to affirm the truth by shouting out the same. One can only imagine the mob scene and the humiliation the emperor must have experienced. The lesson to modern leaders is this: eventually the truth will come out; the longer you wait, the harder your fall.
(The above article is solely the expressed opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of his current and past employers)