There are certain stories that stand the test of time because they represent themes that continue to prove wise to heed. One such parable is said to be hundreds, if not a thousand, years old. It's a story about uncertainty and its ever-present nature. The tale instructs us not just about how to meet uncertainty, but also how to embrace it with the openness necessary to both turn it to our favor and prevent it from being our undoing.
I shared a version of the 'May Be' parable nearly 10 years ago in my first book about entrepreneurship. To this day, it still receives more mentions from seasoned leaders than nearly any other of the powerful lessons of that book. In the current environment in which change is a daily constant and the ripple effects of it are both far-reaching and complex, this tale seems more potent than ever. It reminds us that creativity and openness, and more importantly the adaptability both enable, are vital - not just as skills, but as a mindset underpinning the culture of any organization that intends to lead now and continue leading into the future.
"An aging farmer had a horse that he relied on for working his farm. One day the horse ran away. When the farmer's neighbors heard of this, they came to offer their sympathies. "Such bad luck," they said to him. "May be," responded the farmer.
"A few days later the horse returned bringing three other beautiful and strong horses with him. Again the farmer's neighbors gathered around, this time enthusiastically exclaiming, "What good luck!" Again, the farmer responded, "May be."
"The farmer had a mischievous son and a few days after the horses returned, the son tried to ride one of the wild ones. He was quickly thrown to the ground and broke his leg. "What bad luck," the neighbors all commented, hanging and shaking their heads upon hearing the news. "May be," the farmer replied.
"The very next week, a group of soldiers came through the village. The country was at war and the army needed young recruits. Seeing the farmer's son with his leg broken, they passed him by. "Such good luck," his neighbors told him. "May be," replied the farmer again.
Entrepreneurs are credited with many things. But their most important role is that of catalyst, that spark that helps us move forward and adapt. They look out into the world and ask two questions: Why are things the way they are, and how might they be better? The best ones understand that nothing stands still, including their own foundational ideas that feed their initial success.
Exceptional leaders, which not all entrepreneurs rise to be, go further. They consciously cultivate environments in which many are able to catalyze new value and better ways, not just the person in charge or some select few. They understand that nothing stands still, and that staying tuned into that simple truth and turning it to their advantage ultimately trumps any inevitably temporary status quo. Company sizes, lifecycles, and markets may expand and contract, but no matter what the variables, what's been true for a thousand years is likely to be true for a thousand more.