The Emperor’s New Clothes: My Early Lessons in Leadership

Enza Cignarella, PPCC, MBA, BA

I was in the second grade, likely seven or eight years old, when I was first exposed to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

My teacher, Miss Anne-Marie (yes, I still remember her name!) was giving out books as tokens of achievement and I was one of the lucky ones. I remember the book vividly. It was a soft cover, rectangular shaped book accompanied by a 45 record with a recording of the book. Yes, go ahead, calculate my age and no, there were no podcasts in those days.

I remember being initially surprised by the gift. I was extremely proud to take it home to show my father as I had learned early on that academic achievement correlated with instant esteem. More on that in a subsequent blog perhaps…

When I first played the record and listened to the story, I have to admit I was quite confused. First, it involved a naked man, the Emperor. “Why would my teacher give me this book”, the perplexed child in me asked herself? For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a synopsis:

The Emperor was passionate, some would say obsessed about his clothes, his outward appearance and pretty much in love with himself. Two swindlers stroll into his town claiming to be tailors who had invented a new fabric with a special feature. The feature, they claimed, would allow the Emperor to improve what today we would call “his talent management methods”. Those who were not able to see the fabric with their naked eye would be deemed incompetent and unfit to do their job, so said the swindlers. The Emperor jumped on this idea as he saw it as a way of potentially weeding out any incompetence among his staff, ensuring that he would always be surrounded by the best staff and therefore would always look good to his populace. He commissioned the swindlers to make him new clothes with this new fabric.

The swindling tailors got to work in the Emperor’s castle, seemingly working all night in order to finish the new suit in time for a parade in the days ahead. The Emperor’s aide checked in on the tailors in the morning. As the tailors asked the aide what he thought, the aide was of course hesitant to admit that he did not see any new suit. He did not want to question the Emperor’s choice of tailors nor did he want to be accused of incompetence or lose his job.  So, he said nothing.

On the morning of the parade, the Emperor came for his new suit and although he saw no suit, he too said nothing for fear of appearing incompetent. The tailors “dressed” the Emperor before accepting their payment and moving on to the next town.

As the Emperor paraded naked, no one dared to mention that first, they saw no new clothes and second, that the Emperor was in fact naked. As the crowds praised the Emperor’s new clothes, an innocent child finally says what everyone had been thinking: “But he isn’t wearing any clothes!”

Although I was quite young and had no idea what “leadership” was at that time, I too, like the child in the book could not understand why the Emperor, and everyone else for that matter, had not dared to speak the truth. Intuitively, I suppose that my eight-year old self was likely learning the following lessons about leadership…

1- Leaders never leave wardrobe decisions to someone else.

While this comment may seem in jest, it is intended as a broader metaphor about integrity and wholeness.  It takes a lifetime to learn about oneself and that includes learning about one’s personal style.  We have all had to conform to some notion of appropriate wardrobe at some point or another. I remember buying so many suits when I graduated from business school and entered the workforce.  After a few years of working, I began to shed the suits in favor of clothes that better reflected who I was and who I was becoming. Wardrobe choices became a mere metaphor for other bigger, more important lessons in authenticity and finding my voice. Leaders know that agility to conform to some degree is necessary but losing oneself is not.

 Ask yourself, who are you being?

2- Leaders embrace their vulnerability so as to ask good questions.

The child-like wonder of the little boy who calls out the obvious in the fable is the same wonder that we sometimes lose as we transition along our leadership journey. The corporate path rewards expertise. One is promoted usually for demonstrating mastery of something. At the next learning junction, we forget however that new learning is required and that it is perfectly alright to not have all the answers.  

Faced with something you do not know how do you embrace your vulnerability?

3- Surround yourself with people who are not afraid to speak THE truth and THEIR truth

I have almost passed out in meetings where posturing and rhetoric have consumed minutes and hours I will never get back. “Why are we acting like this?” I would ask myself. Now I get it. It is fear, fear of being judged, fear of not being promoted, fear of losing one’s job. We have all experienced similar fears in one context or another. Great leaders embrace their fears and create conditions of psychological safety. In these spaces, people feel free to be themselves. Diversity of thought emerges organically. Inclusion sprouts like tulips. Like nature, the safe system cannot but benefit from such leadership diversity.  But first, seed the ground in truth. 

What have you done lately to foster safety over fear?

4- Great leaders work in service of others, not in service of things.

If only the Emperor had repurposed an existing outfit! All kidding aside, the work of leaders is sometimes rewarded with higher salary, corner offices, company cars and other extrinsic rewards. These are but workings of an incentive system that brokers talent. While a great leader will always be grateful for these rewards, the stellar among them realize that these are ornaments. The real currency of leadership service is impact, inspiration and the ignition of others’ potential.

Whose potential have you ignited recently?

5- Great leaders get out of their own heads

If only the Emperor had shared his thoughts with someone. My path to becoming a coach was sparked by those times when I had the courage and self-awareness to say, “I cannot figure this out by myself, I would benefit from speaking about it”. Growing up as a pretty self-sufficient person, it was not in my nature to ask for help. It was a habit to stay in my head and analyze the many variables of scenarios often unrealized.  I know now the benefit of getting out of my own head to seek perspective, reflection  and inquiry.  To ask for help is to know oneself and to know oneself is to lead.

How would a coaching relationship serve to make you a better leader?

So, to Miss Anne-Marie whose gift impacted me so, to Hans Christian Anderson for teaching us leadership principles in the language of fables and to my coaches, I say thank you for helping me find my own leadership wardrobe.

About Enza Cignarella, PPCC, MBA, BA

Enza has always been passionate about leadership and human potential, both hers and that of others.  To acquire new skills in the people management space and to better ignite the potential of others, she went back to school to train as a Certified Professional Coach.  She is currently working towards International Coach Federation (ICF) accreditation.

A lifelong learner, over the course of her career, she has built teams, brands, processes and capabilities both in Canada and in Europe. Having learned early on that a career can be a significant context in which people tend to express their gifts, she has curated an expertise in enterprise transformations, talent development and career planning.

LinkedIn – click here.

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