There is an amusing anecdote related in Chapter 60 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. The author is describing an encounter between Fulk of Neuilly (d. 1201), a mendicant preacher trying to win support for a Fourth Crusade, and Richard I Plantagenet of England. Fulk had been shopping his plans to various European monarchs, most of which were not interested in proving financial or material assistance to the project. Fulk was reduced to beating his fist on the doors of one country after another, only to be rebuffed. As Gibbon relates:
The situation of the principal monarchs was averse to the pious summons [of Fulk]. The emperor Frederic the Second was a child; and his kingdom of Germany was disputed by the rival houses of Brunswick and Swabia, the memorable factions of the Guelphs and Ghibelines…Philip Augustus of France had performed, and could not be persuaded to renew, the perilous vow [of going on crusade]…
Richard of England was satiated with the glory and misfortunes of his first adventure, and he presumed to deride the exhortations of Fulk of Neuilly, who was not abashed in the presence of kings. “You advise me,” said Plantagenet, “to dismiss my three daughters, pride, avarice, and incontinence: I bequeath them to the most deserving; my pride to the Knights-Templars, my avarice to the monks of Cisteaux, and my incontinence to the prelates.”
This was what Richard said to Fulk. And what he meant by this, beyond just humor, was that there were others more deserving of his vices than he himself. All in all, it was a witty and effective way to rebuff an overbearing scold like Fulk. But is there any deeper lesson here? Perhaps there is. Most of us are familiar with the old expression of the “monkey on my back.” Having a “monkey on one’s back” is equivalent to having a constantly nagging problem.
As a practical issue of leadership, I have found from long experience that sometimes it is necessary to transfer the monkey on your back to someone else. If you are working in a large organization, or are dealing with customers or clients, you will certainly be familiar with this survival strategy. In the current climate we live in–our culture of blaming, lack of personal responsibility, and skirting obligations–there are many people who seek to transfer their problems to you. They want to pull the “monkey” off their backs and stick him on your back. Sometimes these proverbial “monkeys” get passed around like hot potatoes, as everyone frantically tries to shift responsibility for the problem to someone else. It is an old game.
I wish things were not this way, but the fact is that this is the kind of situation we often encounter. Do not allow other people’s problems to become your problem. Remember the concept of the “dirtbag shuffle“ that we spoke about here some time ago. Make sure that you guard your “back” from those who would try to pin their problems on your shoulders. In the example given above, Fulk tried to turn his problem (needing money for the crusade) King Richard’s problem. And Richard cleverly deflected this effort. He dodged Fulk’s attempt at emotional blackmail, and stuck the problem right back on Fulk, where it no doubt belonged.
What Richard was telling Fulk was this: if you want money for your little field-trip, go talk to the Templars, the monastic orders, and the prelates. I’ve already done my job and fulfilled my obligations. Your problem is not my problem. Now go. Fulk was dismissed from the king’s presence, with the monkey now firmly attached to his back.
Read more about responsibilities and problems in this groundbreaking translation of Cicero’s On Duties: