The lion and the ant: A managerial lesson

This story has been making the rounds lately, and I confess that our research cannot find the source.  So, with thanks to whomever created this great little parable, here it is:

“Every day, a small Ant arrived at work early and started work immediately, she produced a lot and she was happy. The boss, a lion, was surprised to see that the ant was Antworking without supervision. He thought if the ant can produce so much without supervision, wouldn’t she produce more if she had a supervisor!

So the lion recruited a cockroach who had extensive experience as a supervisor and who was famous for writing excellent reports. The cockroach’s first decision was to set up a clocking in attendance system. He also needed a secretary to help him write and type his reports. He recruited a spider who managed the archives and monitored all phone calls.

[Email readers, continue here…]  The Lion was delighted with the cockroach’s report and asked him to produce graphs to describe production rates and analyze trends so that he could use them for presentations at board meetings, so the cockroach had to buy a new computer and a laser printer and recruit a fly to manage the IT department. The Ant, who had been once so productive and relaxed, hated this new plethora of paperwork and meetings which used up most of her time.

The lion came to the conclusion that it was high time to nominate a person in charge of the department where the ant worked. The position was given to the Cicada whose first decision was to buy a carpet and an ergonomic chair for his office. The new person in charge, the cicada, also needed a computer and a personal assistant, who he had brought from his previous department, to help him prepare a work and budget control strategic optimization plan.

The department where the ant works is now a sad place, where nobody laughs anymore and everybody has become upset.  It was at that time the cicada convinced the boss, The Lion to start a climatic study of the environment. Having reviewed the charges of running the ant’s department, the lion found out that the production was much less than before – so he recruited the Owl, a prestigious and renowned consultant, to carry out an audit and suggest solutions. The owl spent 3 months in the department and came out with an enormous report, in several volumes, that concluded that “The Department is overstaffed.”

Guess who the lion fired first?

The Ant of course “Because she showed lack of motivation and had a negative attitude.”

So the lesson is obvious.  And we see examples every day.  We build our companies with layers of management in the natural course of growth, often quoting that a manager should have no more than six direct reports, or that managers should be freed to do the important, high value work.

We often ignore the ants in our work lives, thinking – perhaps subconsciously – that value equates to salary level, or lowest level workers can be replaced. Or best of all, management generates creative output and pushes that creativity down to the worker ants in the organization whose job is to work, not think.

So in this story, was the lion guilty of just that form of managerial thinking?  Why not see the obvious?  Just add more ants, hopefully as resourceful as the first?  Or is it more complex?  We learn from our experience and education that growth comes from “top–grading” at all levels of the organization. And that the bottom ten percent of the workforce must be replaced, as we hire “A” players.

The story is meant to illustrate one folly of common management.  I’d take it as a beautiful warning to all of us that some things are obvious in business, and that we should focus on what works and reinforce that whenever we see it working.

Be a better lion. Watch for what’s great in each and every ant.

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13 Responses to The lion and the ant: A managerial lesson

  1. David J McNeil says:

    Is there anyone who HASN’T seen exactly this scenario play out?…. Thanks to Dave Berkus for the reminder.

  2. sbobet says:

    My work with taxon cycles began when I realized the evolutionary history of the Pheidole

  3. Les Spielman says:

    Excellent reminder Dave. Thank you, again!

  4. Dave Berkus says:

    “Slobet’s” comment above led me to Wikipedia.”Taxon cycles are sequential phases of expansion and contraction of the ranges of species, associated generally with shifts in ecological distribution.” and Pheidoles are scavenger ants. Not quite sure of the meaning of the comment, but I learned something new with this…

    -Dave

  5. Yaniv says:

    To answer your question, Dave, about the source of the parable, it is the Ant, of course. The same Ant with whom the Lion should have consulted, prior to embarking on a misguided effort to replicate her success. Poor thing had to write this parable and broadcast it through social media, just to get her point across. All the Lion had to do was talk to her first, to understand her motivation.

  6. Rick Munson says:

    Dave and all, thank for the valuable lessons in the life of business. What a wonderful world it would be if we were always open to be teachable and in remembrance of our important life experiences. Awareness, acceptance, action and allowance with a good attitude.

  7. Gary Skraba says:

    Outstanding way to put this tendency into perspective!

    Plus, Yaniv is right on the mark: lions really need to get to know their star ant(s) and consider the ramifications of such changes, even if they are consistent with “accepted practices”, which is a lazier approach to process improvement than actually thinking through individual situations.

  8. Cricket Lee says:

    Always great! Also like how you are promoting yourself on the landing page. Hope to meet you someday!

  9. sbobet says:

    lions really need to get to know their star ant(s) and consider the ramifications of such changes, even if they are consistent with “accepted practices”, which is a lazier approach to process

  10. Alex says:

    It is unfortunate that the producer gets kick out and the swivel chair managers remained, end result :zero production

  11. Mervin says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. The information has actually
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  12. duppydom says:

    This story is much like what usually happens in the corporate sector. The office heads do not realize that it is actually the “ants” who actually run their business. The employees who are considered ants in offices are the ones who work the hardest. And the officials above them in hierarchy mostly don’t realize that. And when it comes to downsizing, these “ants” are ones who suffer the most.

  13. Kala Sridhar says:

    Very impactful story.
    Absolutely right.
    Lions need to recognise the efforts of the ants performers and encourage them.
    Superb corporate lesson

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