Are you a ‘Little Donkey’?


December 20th, 2016

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Presents, Politics and Peace – at Christmas

It’s that time of year when many of us in the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, are subjected to a cacophony of Christmas songs and carols blaring out at us from shop PA systems as we dash from shop to shop for our last-minute Christmas shopping. I guess the idea is to get us into the Christmas mood (whatever that is?) so we will do what we are conditioned to do at this time of year ie part with lots of money!

On a recent shopping trip, one Christmas carol brought back childhood memories as it nestled rather incongruously in the playlist between Slade’s garrulous: MERRY CHRISTMAS! and Lennon’s mournful: ‘So this is Christmas (War is over)’. It was the school nativity play favourite: ‘Little Donkey’. It’s about the unfortunate creature that carried the heavily pregnant Mary to the place of Jesus’s birth. In summary, I suppose, the carol is an encouragement to the donkey to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

Donkey business

donkey-shutterstock_535232581I was referencing a donkey in a less noble light on Roffey Park’s Strategic Leadership Programme last week. On the third evening, we have a fun, but challenging, session on power and politics in organisational leadership. I was referencing a model on political skills developed by Simon Baddeley and Kim James. This uses some supposed characteristics of four animals as metaphors for four types of ‘political animals’ people tend to act out in relation to small ‘p’ organisational politics. The model is based on two scales: political awareness and integrity, and the donkey comes out pretty badly. Forget Shrek’s rather annoying but essentially loyal companion and forget the donkey of the US Democratic Party logo and whatever connotations that has for you. In this model, the donkey represents those that have little political awareness or integrity, solely pursuing their own agenda within their organisations. They are described as inept, trying to play a political game – being in the right place at the right time with the right people, but with as much subtlety as a juggernaut and everyone can see through them. There’s not much merit in being a political donkey.

Political ‘Sheep’ have, perhaps, more appeal. Despite their lack of political awareness, they at least have integrity and are loyal followers. But their political naivety leaves them vulnerable to being exploited and getting hurt. ‘Foxes’ have high political awareness and skill, but use it to further their own agenda at the expense of everyone else’s. Finally, the ‘Owl’ has both high political awareness and high integrity with a personal agenda well aligned with their organisations’. Everyone usually says they strive as much as possible to be an Owl, and that they can see no merit in being a donkey.

Hidden donkey?

The only problem is, if you’re a political donkey, you probably won’t be aware of it. It’s the times when our contributions to meetings are all about either overtly or covertly defending our own egos or protecting our own interests rather than progressing the collective agenda. Part of what many find entertaining in the popular TV series, ‘The Apprentice’ is watching the contestants slag off the competition and push themselves forward – and as they do so, make donkeys of themselves.

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as people of integrity, but there’s a real danger in denying that, given the right (or wrong) conditions, we all choose behaviour that, on reflection, did not demonstrate the purest of motives and was a bit inept. We all have a ‘shadow’ that can rear its ugly head at times.

About a year ago, I made one of the best decisions I have made in a long time – to prioritise a monthly day-long retreat. One of the features of that reflective space for me, has, uncomfortably, been getting more in touch with my shadow. Stuff that I struggle with and bury in the busyness of the everyday life of a consultant, percolates to the surface in the context of contemplative prayer. While facing my demons, and re-examining the motives behind some of my thoughts and actions, has not been a pleasant experience, it has been a humbling and a liberating one.

Humility was another theme that emerged on last week’s programme. A number were self-deprecating to such a degree it was debilitating for them as leaders. But to me, humility is about holding both our light and our shadow, our strengths and our weaknesses in our awareness. In short – it’s maintaining an accurate perception of ourselves. Only then are we able to embrace the reality that we have, at the same time, both much to offer and much to learn. Those that can are the kind of leaders I like to follow.

Not so ‘Little Donkey’…

I wonder what ‘Little Donkey’ was thinking as it ‘walked the dusty road’? I wonder if it was aware of both the dependable and the stubborn side of its nature?  Perhaps self-awareness combining with a choice to do the best it could do and keep going, would enable it to achieve something worthwhile? I guess carrying the mother of one whose birth marked such a momentous moment in human history that we number our years from an estimated date of his birth was not a bad day’s work. Maybe not so ‘little’ donkey after all?

May I wish you all a peaceful and humble Christmas and a politically intelligent New Year.

Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers – SIMON BADDELEY AND KIM JAMES  –  Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham Management Education and Development. Vol. 18. Pt. 1.  1987.  pp. 3-19