What can leaders learn from the story of “The Prodigal Son”?

It was an illuminating, restorative and reflective Telos conversation yesterday afternoon when a small group of us met up together at Robin’s house.

(Telos is derived from the Greek word which means end or purpose or goal. It is the root of the term teleology, roughly the study of “purposiveness” or as we have come to call it in Telos “What really matters”.)

An opening story that had involved reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son opened up across the room individual personal reflections, and also many questions as to which of the trio of the father, the prodigal son or the “stay at home” son had it right. What was the parable really about? What really were the key messages within the story?

Is it about courage? Independence? Unconditional love? Is it about the need to value and love each son for the person that they are rather than the things that they do or have done? What is the meaning for families? In the workplace? In countries where there is disharmony and war?

So what could this mean for leaders in the workplace or the home or the community?

Are there here helpful learning points for those in leadership roles about the importance of really understanding and have empathy with their individual team members? A need to care enough to try and understand what really matters to each of them individually and not just collectively as a team? (What Dale Carnegie called “walking in another man’s shoes”.)

I believe it does have resonance and flags up another essential leadership skill or attribute of empathy, which an inspirational or effective leader then demonstrates through the following behaviours:

  • They distinguish the individual person from their workplace behaviours and performance i.e. they have the insight and skills to confront and assist a team member to improve their workplace skills and performance while still making it clear that they value them as a person.
  • They set a clear example to others by celebrating positive change in work place behaviours and performance from those who may have previously been working more “outside the team”.
  • They also recognise, praise, thank and celebrate the successes of those who have been quietly and steadily working “within the team” and ensure that they too feel valued for doing the right thing.
  • They encourage the team members to appreciate each other and their individual roles and contributions within the team – even while they have maybe for some time trodden different paths in terms of work place behaviours. They continually work towards and lead the team towards “reconciliation not retribution” taking forward the lessons learnt from previous behaviours but letting go of the anger or blame.
  • They have learnt to communicate clearly with all team members about why certain decisions are made and for what purpose.
  • They name the “elephant in the room” of why a particular decision or action can feel “unfair” to some and through conversation they address it in an appropriate way and send the “elephant” on its way.
  • They have learnt too (like the father in the parable) to be clear of their own sense of “what really matters” so they have a strong moral compass. They are willing, and have the courage, to demonstrate clearly to others different ways of doing things that help change a deeply embedded and less helpful culture.
  • They use story-telling to provide metaphors to engage others with their key messages
  • They understand the importance and power of conversations to instruct, to reflect, to debate, to listen, to learn, to bond. Their conversations are open, honest, direct and caring and purposeful.

It is invaluable to reflect on how we can all use stories and narrative as one element of a conversational approach for leaders. Story telling really does help others get and connect with the message.

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