A bedtime story for leaders

August 31, 2017

The Panchatantra is a collection of fables from Indian Civilization. Parents often read these as bedtime stories to their children to pass on some moral messages.

The stories work just as well for adults. I often use the following story in my advocacy work to call for early action against public health challenges such as HIV and AIDS. Here it goes:

There were a lot of fishes in a lake. Somehow the lake never caught the attention of fishermen. But one day, as the fishes were happily playing around in the water, they overheard a fishermen talking to another. “This lake is full of fishes. Let us come tomorrow and catch them.”
Fishes reacted differently to this threat. One wise fish said, “Let us get out of this lake before fishermen come back. I know a canal which can take us to another lake,” Another fish said, I know what to do in case the fisher men actually came. But the third fish said, “I don’t think the fishermen will actually come. No one ever came to catch us. So, I will not leave my home.”
The fishermen did come the next morning. The first fish who had foreseen the risk was safe as he had swum away with his family. The second fish also had a plan. He acted as if it was dead. The fisher men thought they had caught a dead fish and they threw it back into the water. He was safe as well. But the third fish was caught and consumed.

The way countries responded to HIV and AIDS in the past three decades is actually like the response of the three fishes. Countries which foresaw the risk early and took proactive action did much better. Some countries, which responded when the problem struck were still OK. But the third category of countries which thought ‘AIDS will never happen to them’ were the ones who saw the maximum impact of the epidemic. As stakeholders remained in denial, HIV continued to spread even though there were ways to prevent it.

This is not about AIDS alone. Development professionals and agencies continue to face denial on several issues, the latest being the climate change. Some feel it is not a real problem.

Looks like leaders need to read the Panchatantra tails to understand the importance of being proactive. Arnold Glasgow says it well, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”