Building our own towers to the moon

  • Published
  • By Col. John E. Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
In his book, Virtues of Leadership, William Bennett shares a folktale from the Dominican Republic that can teach us a great deal of the danger wrought by pride and self-promotion.

Long ago there lived an island king who one sleepless night, got it into his head that he would like to touch the moon. 

"Why not?" he asked himself. "After all, I am the King. What I want, I get. And I want to touch the moon."

The next morning the king called his chief carpenter into the royal court.

"I want you to build me a tower," he commanded. "One tall enough to reach the moon."

The carpenter's stomach jumped and his eyes bulged.

"The moon, sire? Did you say the moon?"

"You heard me. I want to touch the moon. Now go do it!"

The carpenter left the royal court and called a meeting with all the other carpenters. They talked, scratched their heads, and decided his majesty must have been joking. So they built nothing at all.

A few days passed by and the king summoned the chief carpenter back to the royal court.
"I don't see my tower," he barked. "What's taking so long?"

"But your majesty, the carpenter cried, "you can't be serious. A tower to the moon? It's too hard. We don't know how."

"I don't care how you do it, but I want it done and done quickly" the king yelled. "You have three days. If by that time I have not touched the moon, you cannot begin to imagine all the horrible things I'll do to you."

The shaken carpenter ran out of the royal court and again, convened a meeting with his carpenter friends. The assembled carpenters scratched their heads, drew some lines on paper, and racked their brains for an answer. Finally, they came up with a plan.

The chief carpenter quickly went back to the king.

"We have an idea that just might work," he said. "But we'll need every box in the kingdom."

"Excellent!" cried the king. "Let it be done!"

The king sent out a royal decree that every box in the kingdom be carried to the palace. The people brought them in every shape and size--crates and chests and cases and cartons, shoe boxes, hat boxes, flower boxes, even bread boxes.

Then the carpenter ordered that all the boxes be piled one on top of the other, until there wasn't a single box left. But the tower was still not high enough to reach the moon.

"We'll have to make more," he told the king.

So another royal decree was issued. His majesty ordered that every tree on the island be chopped down and the timber brought to the palace. The carpenters made more boxes, and stacked them to the top of the tower.

"I think its high enough," the king announced.

The carpenters looked up nervously.

"Perhaps I should go first," the chief carpenter suggested. "Just to be on the safe side."

"Don't be silly!" the king barked. "This was my idea. I will be the first one to touch the moon. The honor belongs to me."

He started to climb. Higher and higher he mounted. He left the birds far below, and broke through the clouds. When he got to the top, he stretched out his arms--but he was just barely short! A few more inches and he would be able to bask in the glory of being the first to touch the moon! Or at least that's the way it looked to him.

"One more box!" he yelled down. "I need just one more box!"

The carpenters just shook their heads. They had already gathered every box and used every piece of wood in the Kingdom.

"We don't have anymore!" they yelled at the top of their lungs. "No more boxes! You'll have to come down now sire."

The king stamped his foot and jumped up and down, and the whole tower trembled.

"I won't come down! I won't!" he yelled. "I want to be the first to touch the moon and no one is going to stop me."

Then his majesty, confident he knew more than anyone else about building towers to the moon, had his brilliant idea.

"Listen here," he called. "I know what to do. Take the first box from the bottom and bring it to the top."

The carpenters stared at each other in disbelief.

"You fools!" the king yelled. "You're wasting my time! Take the first box and bring it up now!"

The carpenters shrugged.

"This is a very stubborn and prideful king," the chief carpenter said, "I suppose we must obey his command."

So they pulled out the bottom box. You don't need to be told the rest of the story.

The Pitfalls of Pride

Pride has perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries, and it is an especially paradoxical emotion in American culture. On the one hand, we applaud rugged individualism, self-reliance and personal excellence. But on the other, we understand that too much pride can easily tip the balance, as it did in the story of the king wanting to touch the moon, toward vanity, selfishness and ultimately, self-destruction.

For centuries, pride has been considered one of humankind's most fundamental weaknesses. Vain self-love corrodes human community and erodes our sense of dependence on one another. Pride blinds us to the pitfalls wrought by selfish tendencies and hinders us from rejoicing in the special talents and skills of those around us. It also makes it difficult to build a well functioning team.

Research by Barry Schlenker has shown how self-serving tendencies can poison a group. In nine experiments at the University of Florida, Schlenker had people work together on some task. He then falsely informed them that their group had done well or poorly. In every one of these studies the members of the successful groups claimed greater responsibility for their group's performance than did the member of groups that supposedly failed at the task. Additionally, in the successful groups, almost all of the members claimed personally contributing more than their group mates; very few said they contributed less.

Hence, this experiment confirmed how predisposed people are to what Schlenker terms, "favorable bias toward self," which is much akin to the phrase often used in Greek drama, hubris. Hubris is a negative term implying both arrogant, excessive self-pride or self-confidence that, if not kept in check, leads to someone developing a tragic flaw that can lead to their downfall. Much like the king in our story, the dangers of allowing this favorable bias toward self to go unchecked is that it not only holds potentially negative consequences for the leader, but also those being led.

For instance, what have you thought of a leader who continually stretches to make themselves look good in front of others? Or, what of a leader who misuses their power to jockey for position or to continually overrule those in their care simply because they've come to believe their way is the only way? How pleasant is it to work with someone whose prideful ambition makes them terribly impatient, demanding others deliver desired outcomes under unrealistic deadlines? It is very unlikely anyone reading this article gets much satisfaction working in an environment dominated by such prideful, self-oriented behavior.

Pride Precedes a Fall

Conversely, other-oriented, second-mile leaders conduct themselves quite differently. Instead of focusing on building towers to their own greatness, they choose to channel their ambition into actions that promote mutual respect, good will and collective gain. Second-mile leaders spend more time looking out the window rather than in the mirror when it comes to apportioning credit for things done well. However, when projects they are responsible for go south or results fall short of expectation, they reverse course, looking in the mirror to apportion responsibility, not out the window to assign blame.

So today, I would challenge you to be ever vigilant. Be on the lookout for the destructive enemy we call pride. Choose instead to overcome our favorable bias toward self by willfully embracing every opportunity to serve others. For just as quickly as prideful action can tear down, selfless service can build up.

Sixth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu astutely pointed out that "at no time in the world will a man who is sane over reach himself, over-spend himself, over-rate himself."

Don't be a leader so enamored with your own glory that you trick yourself into building a tower to the moon. Otherwise, you too will come to learn the hard way how pride can precede a fall.