If You Cannot Be Great, At Least Do No Harm

Aesop tells us a story of a hunter who was once looking for the tracks of a lion.  Searching here and there with no success, he paused to ask a local woodcutter if he had seen the footprints of a lion, and, if so, where he thought the lion’s den might be found.  The woodcutter responded that there was no need to bother with prints; he would be happy to take the hunter to the lion’s den himself.  Instead of being pleased at this news, the hunter began to show signs of extreme nervousness and fear.  He then extricated himself from the situation, telling the woodcutter, “Thank you for your offer, but I am really only interested in finding the tracks of the lion, not the lion himself.”

This story illustrates a certain mentality that many of us will be familiar with.  We often encounter those who claim to be searching for the truth, but who actually prefer to examine shadows of the truth.  They want the taste of truth, sampled from a safe distance, instead of experiencing the intimidating reality of standing in truth’s presence.  One of these truths is this:  how we perceive ourselves is very different from how others perceive us.  Our self-perceptions may be far removed from reality; to see ourselves as others see us would be devastating.  It is well and good that we should aspire to greatness; but in fact many of us will fall short of the ideal, and would be better off in most situations aspiring simply not to cause undue damage.  I say this:  since true greatness in practice is elusive for many, it is better to aspire to prevent harm, than it is to seek to be Alexander the Great.  It is a matter of knowing ourselves, of understanding our capabilities and limitations.

Most leaders on the world stage today would be well-served by this approach.  Greatness in leadership is a quality bestowed only on a select few; the majority would do well just to avoid harming their countries.  Catastrophic damage in the world has been caused by those who have inflated opinions of themselves, and delusional conceptions of their ability to master events or solve problems.

With regard to this point, Aesop has another illustrative tale.  There was once a colony of frogs in a pond that found itself living in chaos.  These frogs, unwilling to tolerate this situation any longer, sent a delegation to Zeus, the king of the gods, and asked him for help.  They wanted the god to select a king for them, a king that would be able to keep good order.  Zeus listened to the frog delegation patiently.  When the time came for him to respond, he picked up a piece of wood and threw it into their pond.  The frogs at first scurried away; but when the piece of wood proved to be non-threatening and immobile, they gradually relaxed.  Soon they climbed on to the piece of wood, jumped off it, and generally treated it with disregard.  They thought to themselves, “What kind of king is this?  This so-called king doesn’t do anything at all!”

They were, all in all, very unhappy with this new sovereign.  So they sent a second delegation to Zeus to ask for a different king.  Zeus by now was becoming impatient with the frogs and their antics.  He thought to himself, “Well, if they want a different king, I will give them a different king.”  So he found a large serpent and threw it down into the pond.  This big snake behaved in the predictable way:   it began to ate the frogs.  Soon, the pond’s frog population was entirely decimated.  But by this time there was nothing that the frogs could do:  they had asked for this king, and Zeus had given it to them.

The lesson of this tale is that it is often better to be ruled by a do-nothing, than by a malicious snake.  The piece of wood may not have been glamorous; it may not have been able to deliver demagogic speeches, or pander to the masses with lies and conceits; but at least it did no harm.  And yet the frogs were not happy with the piece of wood.  They wanted something more exciting, more dynamic, more interesting.  They failed to appreciate what they had, and could not comprehend how easy it is for bad leadership to destroy a nation.  But in the end, when the snake was thrown in their midst, they did learn.  History is filled with examples of leaders who may not have been glamorous, but who at least did not cause their nations undue harm.

It is not popular to admit it, but these days, it seems as if not causing harm is the most we can hope for from our leaders.  Most of them are so venal, so corrupt, and so self-serving, that they cannot do anything except harm their nation’s institutions and interests.  For me, it would be a relief just to have someone who is not causing undue damage; we hardly dare even to hope for greatness in our leaders.  And when we examine our own lives, we should be careful to make an honest, realistic assessment of our strengths and capabilities.  Not everyone will be able to excel, and there is nothing wrong with this.  Far better is it to know thyself, than to be blinded by arrogant delusion.  Even mediocre men can do much good, when they surround themselves with competent and vigorous advisers.  We should be mindful of the words of Sir Thomas Browne, who counseled:

And since few or none prove eminently vertuous but from some advantageous Foundations in their Temper and natural Inclinations; study thyself betimes, and early find, what Nature bids thee to be, or tells thee what thou may’st be.

[From A Letter To A Friend]

I would much rather have someone around me who has a realistic sense of his strong and weak points, than be saddled with someone with an inflated sense of self-importance.  Many go to the market-place, but few will be bestowed with the crown of Olympia.  And since most of us will not achieve greatness in most things, we should pay more attention to not causing harm, than in trying to be something that we will never be.  And who can say?  Perhaps this self-acknowledgement of our limitations, this admission that we are not great in something, is in itself a form of greatness, and a quality that is in desperate need today.


Read more about the nature of greatness in Lives of the Great Commanders: