One of my early articles for this publication was on Lessons from the Animal School Fable in Leveraging Strengths. The main point was that most of us are unbalanced. We are relatively stronger in one area than another. Over the last decade, we’ve made this thinking more sophisticated.

An adaptation of George Reavis’ fable, “The Animal School”,  originally written in 1940, when he was superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools:

The animals organized a school to help their children deal with the problems of the new world. And to make it easier to administer the curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying, they decided that all their children would take all the subjects. This produced some interesting issues.

The duck was excellent in swimming but relatively poor in running, so he devoted himself to improving his running through extra practice. Eventually, his webbed feet got so badly worn that he dropped to only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in this school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit had a nervous breakdown because the other animals said she looked like a rat when she jumped in the water for swimming class and all her hair got matted down.

In the climbing class, the eagle beat all the others to the top of the tree, but kept insisting on using his own method of getting there. This was unacceptable, so the eagle was severely disciplined.

And then the fish came home from school and said, “Mom, Dad, I hate school. Swimming is great. Flying is fun if they let me start in the water. But running and climbing? I don’t have any legs; and I can’t breathe out of the water.”

The fish’s parents made an appointment for her with the principal who took one look at her progress reports and decreed, “You are so far ahead of the rest of the class in swimming that we’re going to let you skip swimming classes and give you private tutoring in running and climbing.”

The fish was last seen heading for Canada to request political asylum. The moral of this story is:

Let the fish swim. Let the rabbits run. Let the eagles fly.

We don’t want a school of average ducks.

or, Play to people’s strengths.

Investing in Strengths

It’s a lesson we learn over and over again. Most of us are unbalanced. We are relatively stronger in one area than another. There is a great temptation to fix ourselves or others by investing time to improve the areas that are relatively less strong. But that’s not the way forward.

The better approach is to invest time to improve the areas that are already relatively strong, and find ways to compensate for the gaps. That could be leveraging technology or partnering with someone else. If you are relatively weak at managing operational details, partner with a strong chief operating officer. If you are relatively weak at dealing with people’s problems and issues, partner with a strong chief human resource officer. If you are relatively weak at coming up with strategies, partner with a strong chief strategy officer.

It’s true of the strengths in those areas as well. Defining strengths as innate talent + learned knowledge + practiced skills + hard-won experience + apprenticed craft-level caring and sensibilities points the way towards further development.

First, figure out how much you care. You don’t have to turn all your innate talents into strengths. And, you may want to have adequate strengths in some areas by investing in learning for knowledge and practice for skills.

Investing in experience is a greater commitment. You’ll have to put yourself in situations that will stretch you and sometimes set you up for failure. That’s the “hard-won” part of experience. It’s most valuable when it hurts.

The highest level of strength is craft-level caring and sensibilities. These are the amazing artists, scientists or interpersonal leader operating at a different level. Becoming a master craftsman requires years of apprenticeship to absorb sensibilities that can’t be learned, practiced or even experienced. It’s wonderful. It just may not be worth the time investment in all cases.

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