Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Snake and his Tail”*

Posted by jlubans on June 11, 2015

Caption: Illustration by John Lord, Tail and Head, One-on-One.

“A snake's tale (sic) once decided there was no need
For the head to go first. 'It's my turn to lead.'
'Be quiet,' the snake's other members said.
'Wretched appendage, how could you go first
Without the eyes or nose or ears
By which each living creature steers?'
But their arguments didn't prevail
And the rational head lost out to the mindless tail,
The roles were reversed,
And, dragging them blindly along, the tail went first.
When the snake fell into a rocky pit and was almost killed,
The tail which was so self-willed
Began humbly apologising, pleading:
'Save us, please, O head, our master!
The mutiny I raised has ended in disaster.
Put me back at the rear
And I'll obey and you needn't fear
Any more accidents with me leading.'”

“Moral: Leaders need to have a sense of direction.”

Keeping to my contrarian ways, I’d add that both leader (head) and follower (tail) need to have a sense of direction. It’s what Mary Parker Follett said many years ago when describing effective leadership:
“Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader –the common purpose.” When students do the “balloon trolley” – which I use to teach the importance of shared leadership - I choose leaders from the back and the front and the middle to help a group navigate around the classroom or hallway or parking lot. Keeping things interesting are the balloons in front and back of each member of the trolley. Drop one and start over. As each newly appointed leader keeps his/her place in the line and directs the group, the lessons are quickly learned. Each member of the group, regardless of location, has a role and responsibility, the least of which is to listen and to speak up (communicate!) when the line encounters difficulty - the tail indeed has information which the head does not. The linking metaphor is not lost on the group – each literally must support the other.
La Fontaine’s version** of this fable, in-line with Aesop, suggests that letting the “tail”, the rabble, lead a nation will result in disaster. A century after La Fontaine, many would dispute the divine right of kings and some would embrace the revolutionary notion of governance “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet, even today, many bosses, the world over, are reluctant to embrace a democratic leadership. It's a bit like the centuries it took for scholars to get over the "ancient mistake in natural history" that a snake's tail was as poisonous as the head!

Here's the conclusion of La Fontaine's fable:
“With cruel kindness Heaven granted
The very thing he (the tail) blindly wanted:
To such desires of beasts and men,
Though often deaf, it was not then.
At once this novel guide,
That saw no more in broad daylight
Than in the murk of darkest night,
His powers of leading tried,
Struck trees, and men, and stones, and bricks,
And led his brother (the head) straight to Styx.
And to the same unlovely home,
Some states by such an error come.”

*Source: Michie,James & Lord,John Vernon.
Aesop's fables. London: J. Cape. 1989,

**Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

© John Lubans 2015
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