One of the highlights of my week comes on Sunday morning, when I get up and check my email inbox for a special treat.
It’s Brain Pickings, a weekly newsletter founded by Maria Popov that offers cross-disciplinary collections of writings from fields of art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more. I especially appreciate the interdisciplinary perspectives shared through its articles and stories.
A few weeks ago, one of the Brain Pickings article featured a recently published children’s book by French author and illustrator Olivier Tallec called Louis I, King of the Sheep, published by Enchanted Lion Books.
The book tells the story of an ordinary sheep named Louis. One day, while out in an open field, a crown blowing in the wind happens to land Louis’ head. With that random act, Louis immediately appoints himself as king and thus begins a journey of discovery on the benefits and pitfalls of power.
Louis immediately begins to plot his life as King of The Sheep. He dreams of a grand throne to sit on, and an extravagant bed where he could sleep apart from the other sheep, his loyal subjects.
Louis’ arrogance increases with each page of the book. He begins to imagine receiving the world’s greatest artists at his palace. Ambassadors from other countries would flock to him to pay tribute.
As King Louis becomes even more intoxicated by his imagined power, his visions become darker and even more sinister. As King, he sees the need to bring discipline to his subjects, forcing them to march behind him. Ultimately, he decides that only the sheep that resembled him would be allowed to live in his kingdom; all the others would be banished.
The story comes to an end much as it began, with another random wind blowing the crown off his head. Suddenly, Louis is no longer a king, but just a regular sheep.
This simple yet profound book captures the essence of leadership. And in particular, our relationship with the power that comes from being a leader.
I have found that when leaders assume new roles, they have trouble managing power. Like Louis, many leaders create their own visions of what their roles will be like. The things they’ll be able to do. How others must treat them.
Like Louis, some leaders become intoxicated by power. They become self-serving and even tyrannical. They might pretend to be a sheep to relate to the people they are leading, but deep down inside they think they are wolves, and thus superior to everyone.
The final message in the story of Louis the sheep stresses the idea that power is often bestowed by chance. You may be a leader today, but there is no guarantee that you will be a leader forever. Like a crown blowing in the wind, power is fleeting, and as quickly as one gains it, one can lose it.
So what’s the take away from this children’s book? In her summary of the book, Maria Popov notes that this story “is at heart an imaginative and intelligent parable of the inherent responsibility that comes with power.”
That is a lesson consistent with ideas I’ve shared in my books and blogs: If you seek leadership strictly for personal gain, and ignore your broader responsibilities to the people you lead, you are destined to fail.
As leaders, we must all remember that with great power comes great personal responsibility. Leaders who ignore that lesson will ultimately find themselves back among the ranks of those people being led.
This week’s gut check question asks: are you intoxicated by power?