I remember once hearing a story, a fable of sorts, that feels timely given current events, especially news related to the spread of the Corona virus. This legend is often attributed to Native American folklore and is called the “Tale of Two Wolves.”
In brief, a wise grandfather is teaching his grandson about life and the fierce battle of opposing forces raging deep within all people, including himself. The metaphorical battle he describes is between two wolves, one white (representing good) and one black (representing evil). Sometimes these wolves hide in the weeds of our minds waiting for just the right moment for a surprise attack in the dark of night; at other times the wolves battle each other in the full light of day. Either way, they battle for control of our hearts, thoughts, attitudes, and actions; they are always ready for a fight to the bitter end.
After listening to this story in quiet contemplation, the young wide-eyed boy can barely contain his curiosity asking, “Grandpa, Grandpa, which wolf will win these battles?”
With a lifetime of experience and measured wisdom, the grandfather responds quietly and confidently, “The one you feed my son, the one you feed.”
I submit the lessons in this story apply to more than just the battle between good and evil. There are all kinds of metaphorical wolves battling for control of our hearts, minds, attitudes, behaviors, and actions. Some battles are unique to us as individuals; many are common to all of us. For a small sampling of “Wolf Feeding Options,” please look at the enclosed feeding chart. What wolves do you find battling for control in your life? What metaphorical wolves would you add to this chart?
My focus today is on our behavior as leaders during times of rapidly spreading fear, anxiety, unrest, and uncertainty. The current Coronavirus outbreak is just such a time. (Last night, our local news station ran a story about a large retailer completely sold out of toilet tissue, hand sanitizer and bottled water, just to name a few items. I also had a client event cancelled this coming week as a precautionary measure of understandable prudence and concern for associate safety.)
When we’re stressed and feeling fearful, we tend to look at others as a way of calibrating our own emotional response to a situation. We also look to people in positions of leadership for reassurance, confidence and a sense of, “this will be ok.” Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere:
- When experiencing heavy turbulence on an airplane, nervous passengers look to the flight attendants to determine how concerned they appear to be. If a crew member’s face and non-verbal behaviors appear to say, “this is OK, simply unusual turbulence that will end soon” then passengers tend to become more relaxed and experience less stress.
- Athletes, like basketball players as an example, will look to their coaches for confidence and direction when trailing in a competitive game. If the coach is rattled and fearing a loss, the players will respond in kind. If the coach exudes confidence and control, the team will be more confident as well.
- Children will look to their parents during uncertain times attempting to learn how frightened they should be; if they’re experiencing a new or unfamiliar set of circumstances, they scan their parents faces to determine, is this OK or is this scary? Am I safe?
Please know I am not discounting the seriousness of the Corona virus or minimizing the need for prudence and an abundance of cautiousness. Clearly the number of deaths and reported cases is alarming and indeed, a reason for genuine concern. Having said that, consider how nonchalant and relaxed most of us have become about influenza, even though the CDC reported more than 34,000 deaths in just the last flu season alone.
Why so relaxed and nonchalant with so many fatalities? Because most of us have grown up with “the flu” as an accepted part of life. We know a great deal about it and there are less unknowns. For many people, the perception of catching the flu doesn’t seem to be much worse than catching the common cold. For many, that is simply not the case. Thousands of people die from influenza every year; yet there is no hysteria, no shortages of toilet paper, no runs on fresh bottled water, no cancelled events.
It is the unknown aspects of the Corona virus that are scary for most of us. How is it transmitted? What are the symptoms? Where did it come from? How can I be safe? How long will this last? When will an antibiotic be available? How serious will it be? How do I keep my children safe? Humans tend to fear the unknown.
This is a time for leadership everywhere and at all levels. Like passengers on a bumpy flight, people are looking to gauge our level of fear and concern. We can acknowledge the realities of this situation without promoting fear. We can exercise caution and prudence without exaggerating the unknown risks, simply because they are unknown. We can role model calm. We’re able to communicate what we know and when we know it with confidence.
We can be consciously aware of which wolves we’re feeding, both at the personal level and the organizational level, through words and actions.
Which of your wolves will you feed this coming week?
How will you live, or lead, differently or better this coming week?
“Expanding Your Capacity for Success”
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- “Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” – Rudyard Kipling
- “Ignorance is the parent of fear.” — Herman Melville
- “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” — H. P. Lovecraft
- “I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday, and I love today.” — William Allen White
- “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca
- “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” — Japanese Proverb
- “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius
- “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” — Plato
- “Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” — Shirley Maclaine
- “Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop.” — Usman B. Asif