Many years ago there lived a vain and pompous emperor who was overly concerned with his appearance. He spent lavishly on clothes and would change outfits almost hourly every day. He loved to parade himself through his kingdom so that all could note his exquisite taste and handsome appearance.
One day, two swindlers approached the emperor, posing as tailors. They claimed to have invented a revolutionary fabric for the emperor. According to the tailors, the cloth was surpassingly beautiful with its elaborate and intricate design. In addition, the cloth had a special power - it was invisible to anyone who was stupid or unfit for his or her position.
Never one to deny himself the latest fashion, the emperor fell prey to the swindlers' story, and he ordered them to make him a new suit out of their innovative fabric. He resolved to use the magic material to determine which of his subjects were suitable for their roles and which were not.
The swindlers called for the finest silks and supplies to construct the magical suit for the emperor. Of course, they merely pocketed the materials and pretended to be weaving the emperor's clothes.
While waiting, the emperor became concerned about his new outfit. "What if I can't see the clothes," he wondered, "What if I'm not fit to be emperor? Worried, he sent his wisest and most trusted advisors to report on his new clothes.
One by one, the royal advisors dropped in to gaze upon the emperor's famous clothes. During each visit, the swindlers told of the magical powers of the robes - they were invisible to anyone who was stupid or unfit for their position.
Obviously, none of the advisors could see the clothing. Yet, rather than suspecting the tailors of fraud, the advisors were duped, each believing his own stupidity was blinding him to the magic clothes. Fearful of being discovered as unwise, every one of the advisors claimed to have seen the emperor's new clothes. "What delightful colors!" they reported to the emperor. "How perfectly cut and fashioned!" they exclaimed.
Upon hearing the reports of his trusted advisors, the emperor was exuberant. He decided to hold a special parade the following morning to model his new clothes in front of his subjects. Word of the emperor's beautiful clothes and their magical powers spread like wildfire throughout the kingdom.
Early in the morning, the emperor's attendants came to help him dress. Like the advisors, the attendants had tricked themselves into believing that the garments were real. Upon being presented with his new clothes, the emperor was appalled. The clothes were invisible to him. However, never one to be flustered, the emperor gamely pretended to be in awe of his new suit of clothes. "What an exquisite outfit!" he bellowed.
At first, the emperor felt uncomfortable in his new garb (which was no garb at all). Yet, he refused to admit that he couldn't see the clothes. "After all," the emperor reasoned, "if everyone else can see the clothes, then they must be real."
The time came for the parade to start, and the emperor strolled through the streets in the middle of the royal procession. Assembled along the roadways, the shopkeepers, bakers, millers, and carpenters showered the emperor with compliments on his new clothes.
Now, the emperor was really quite naked, but even the peasants bought into the lie perpetuated by the swindling tailors. To a man, they all assumed the emperor must be wearing clothes, and they were ashamed not to be able to see his fine attire.
The king paraded through the streets for a long while until a young boy's loud cry bought the procession to a halt. "The emperor isn't wearing any clothes!!!"
A murmur went through the crowd, and everyone soon agreed that the emperor was indeed not wearing anything. Mortified, the emperor ran as fast as he could to the safety of his castle. As for the swindlers, they escaped the kingdom with a handsome sum of money, and a lifetime of laughs.
The story of the emperor's new clothes is revealing of human nature. We attempt to guise ourselves with an image of intelligence and confidence. We act like we know it all, and we have it all together. However, our true identity finds its way to the surface. We make errors, lack wisdom, or fail to exercise good judgment.
Unwittingly, we all expose our flaws and knowledge gaps, and we parade them around the office from meeting to meeting. "Whether you acknowledge your weaknesses or not, everyone still sees them," says Chris Musselwhite of Inc.com. "So rather than conceal them, the person who tries to hide weaknesses actually highlights them, creating the perception of a lack of integrity and self-awareness." When we attempt to deny our imperfections, our credibility with others diminishes.
In his article "Self-Awareness and the Effective Leader," Musselwhite suggests behaviors we can practice as leaders to enhance self-awareness. First, we can solicit feedback to discover how colleagues and constituents perceive us. Second, we can ask questions and permit others to add input into our decision-making. Third, we can improve as listeners.
"I'm sorry" and "I don't know," may be two of the most difficult phrases for humans to verbalize. However, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes from time to time. The key is to be self-aware - to acknowledge when we're clueless and when we've failed. Doing so yields authenticity, and makes us leaders more worthy of being followed.
To read the complete fable, The Emperor's New Clothes, please visit: http://hca.gilead.org.il/emperor.html.
Also, be sure to check out Chris Musselwhite's thoughts on self-awareness.