Why All Leaders Should Read Lord of the Flies
All entrepreneurs have moments when they feel like young Ralph in William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies.
Ralph is left deserted on a tropical island with a group of his peers. He is appointed leader, yet he finds it impossible to enlist the help and support of his fellow survivors. Most of Ralph’s friends would rather swim and laze about than get to the vital work of building shelter.
In frustration, Ralph vents feelings that every entrepreneur can relate to. In exasperation, he says:
Meetings. Don’t we love meetings? Every day. Twice a day. We talk…I bet if I blew the conch [shell] this minute, they’d come running. Then we’d be, you know, very solemn, and someone would say we ought to build a jet, or a submarine, or a TV set. When the meeting was over they’d work for ﬁve minutes, then wander off or go hunting.
Not only do the boys of Lord of the Flies learn about the dark corners of human nature, but they also learn that organizations and political bodies are slow, cumbersome beasts that require an infinite amount of patience and political savvy to tame.
Entrepreneurs know this all too well. They have the vision, they got the initial buy-in, and they surround themselves with positive energy. Then when it comes time to execute they are surprised when the team falls apart, divisions occur, problems arise, and strife reigns.
Success for Ralph, and all entrepreneurs, hinges on making sure things get done despite the usual setbacks. Golding aptly sums up the dilemma:
Ralph moved impatiently. The trouble was, if you were a chief you had to think, you had to be wise. And then the occasion slipped by so that you had to grab at a decision. This made you think; because thought was a valuable thing that got results.
Not only does Ralph have to produce results, but he has to do it while Jack, his rival, taunts him and clamors to create his own power base. This too is a common situation for an entrepreneur. Jack squares off with Ralph and demands Ralph explain his value to the group:
Jack’s face swam near him.
‘And you shut up! Who are you, anyway? Sitting there telling people what to do. You can’t hunt, you can’t sing-‘
‘I’m chief. I was chosen.’
Jack calls Ralph a “coward” who only “talks.” The two eventually wage a small war against each other. Jack recruits allies through brute force and the promise of meat. Ralph keeps his few friends at his side by being rational, fair-minded, and diplomatic.
The chaos, turmoil, and fear drive events to a bloody conclusion. Jack and Ralph live and are rescued by a naval ship. But the rescuers are caught up in their own mission of survival.
While entrepreneurs don’t normally have to deal with bloody coups, any entrepreneur will instantly identify with the boys’ situation. The petty resentments, the naked will to survive, and the desperation to win are part and parcel of the experience of the entrepreneur, albeit played out a bit less dramatically.
Lord of the Flies should be required reading for all entrepreneurs and leaders. It puts in perspective political battles and teaches that the one true test of the leader is execution that leads to concrete results.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.