Chris Read: Business lessons from Aesop's Fables

Jenna Towler
clock • 4 min read

Aesop’s Fables can offer us a few lessons in managing our businesses through a pandemic, writes Chris Read

Ben Edwin Perry was a professor of classics at the University of Illinois in the middle part of the 20th century. He is accredited with inventing the Perry Index, a reference system for Aesop’s Fables or the Aesopica.

Aesop is best known as a storyteller. He was born in Thrace in 620BC and spent much of his adult life on the Greek island of Samos. Not a bad place to live out a lockdown of pestilence, of which they had many in ancient times.

As children, many of us had books containing Aesop’s Fables. Some of the stories still have deep resonance today. They can even be used as allegories for running a business in modern times - not least through a pandemic.

Let’s look at five different fables and see how they resonate.

Perry Index 42 - The Farmer and his Sons: In this story, a farmer on his death bed calls his sons to not divide his land when he dies as he had buried some treasure. After his death, the sons dig up the land to find the treasure. They find none. However, the crops flourish and they have a bumper harvest. The sons realise the valuable message of the importance of investing in themselves to reap the benefits in the future.

Times of recession and economic challenge have always been a great opportunity to invest in your own business, to come up with new products and propositions. I suspect over the past year or so, many innovations have been squirrelled away inside businesses, waiting to be unleashed into the world as we emerge blinking into the light after the latest lockdown.

Perry Index 70. The Oak and the Reed: In this story, Aesop compares how the Oak tree and the reed prepare for an oncoming storm. The Oak proclaims boldly that it will withstand the storm with its strength. When the storm comes the tree is blown over. However, the reed bends in the wind and goes with the flow. It survives and the oak dies.

Business agility and nimbleness in times of trouble will help sustain operations through troubled times while enabling it to quietly build growth opportunities for the future. Better to bend than break.

Perry Index 101. The Crow in Borrowed Feathers: In this fable, a crow dresses itself in the feathers of other more colourful birds and looks to compete against them. The other birds are not fooled and strip the crow of his newfound finery.

Sincerity and belief in your own capability as a business will outlast businesses who mimic others but do not have the depth to deliver on the precarious façade they’ve built for themselves. As football managers like to remind us, they focus on their team’s own game and, by winning one game at a time, they build towards the massive annual prizes.

Perry Index 118. The Beaver: In ancient times, the beaver was hunted for its testicles as it was believed they had medicinal value. The story goes that the beaver would rather gnaw off its own testicles to preserve itself, than be killed.

The parallel in business, if there is one, is that we sometimes need to reduce our exposure to parts of the business that expose us to the most downside risk, no matter how attached we are to these areas. Adjusting, recalibrating and innovating intelligently seem to be watchwords of modern business management to enable businesses to continue flourishing in existential times.

Perry Index 226, The Tortoise, and the Hare: As one of most well-known fables, the hare ridicules the slow-moving tortoise. The tortoise tires of the hare’s arrogance and challenges the it to a race.

As the race begins, the hare tares off, leaving the tortoise plodding well behind at his own steady pace. Puffed up by its own air of superiority, the hare decides to have a nap halfway through the race, only to find that the tortoise overtakes him and wins the race.

The message for business: perseverance and self-belief in your own business strategy (or even investment strategy) will eventually win the day. By focusing on setting and delivering on clear business objectives, you ensure you arrive at your defined destination as a winner and avoid losing your way.

Aesop met his unfortunate end by being accused of temple theft and reportedly being thrown from a craggy cliff at Delphi. Shortly after his death, the Delphians suffered pestilence and famine. So, the final moral of this story here is surely ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds'!

Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas

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