7th July 2016

The Fable of Johnny and Jimmy

One winter’s morning Johnny was delighted to find that it had snowed overnight. As he walked downstairs the onslaught began. “Mum, Mum can I go and play in the snow?” His mum tried to curb his enthusiasm. “Johnny it will be freezing out there. Stay inside with me where it is warm. You can see the snow just as well from in here.” Johnny was determined. “Mum, Mum can I go and play in the snow?” Johnny was not only determined but relentless and eventually he wore his mother down until she eventually said ‘OK Johnny if you must go and play in the snow you can, but lets get you ready first” and with those words she got little Johnny dressed in is wellies, thick socks, warmest clothes, waterproofs and hat scarf and gloves and so Johnny went to play in the snow in the garden.

In the house next door a similar scene was playing out and as Jimmy came downstairs he too cried out “Mum, Mum can I go and play in the snow?”. Now Jimmy’s mum was a little different. She too tried all of the usual strategies to dissuade Jimmy from going outside. When she realised it was not possible she said to Jimmy, ‘look Jimmy, if you want to go and play outside in the snow, of course you can; but before you do is there anything you should think about?”. Jimmy was lost in his eagerness to get outside and play in the snow with Johnny. ‘No Mum I just want to go outside and play in the snow” to which his Mum said, “Well if you are sure Jimmy” and with those words she opened the door and little Jimmy stepped outside still dressed in his pyjamas and slippers to play in the snow.

You can imagine what happened next. Jimmy’s delight at being outside to play in the snow was soon usurped by feelings of cold and wet and within six minutes he was crying and knocking at the door to be let back in. His Mum had been keeping a watchful eye on Jimmy and she was there with warm towels to dry him, a warm drink to bring his temperature back up and a cuddle to comfort him. Twenty minutes later in his dressing gown by the fire Jimmy’s enthusiasm had returned and with all the resilience that kids show he started again. “Mum, Mum can I go and play in the snow?” eventually his mum said “Jimmy of course you can, if that is what you still want to do. But before you do is there anything that you need to think about?”

Jimmy remembered the pain the deep, deep cold had caused him and was aware that Johnny had played out for a lot longer than Jimmy had been able to and so reflected on what he had learned. “Well Mum my feet got very wet and cold so perhaps I should wear my wellies” “OK” said his Mum, “Anything else?” to which Jimmy replied “Wellies will keep my feet dry but I will need socks to keep them warm. I should put on thick socks” I will resist the temptation to turn this into a shaggy dog story but you can imagine the thought process. Jimmy eventually went out into the snow having taken his own decisions about his clothing. Being more properly equipped he had a great time playing in the snow.

So what is the moral of this fable? Well fast forward 15 to 20 years and ask yourself “Who would you rather have on your team?” Johnny, who had never made a decision for himself in his life, or Jimmy, who had been encouraged to make thousands of decisions for himself, and who, even more importantly, had learned the connections between the decisions he makes and the consequences of those decisions and who had learned to take ownership, accountability and responsibility for his decisions?

The answer is clear. Jimmy would make a far better employee, team member and leader. Although our motives may be the best, every time we make a decision for someone we deprive them of the opportunity to learn for themselves, and in so doing we cheat them of the opportunity to learn and to grow.

Of course learning cannot happen without mistakes. Getting it wrong is a necessary consequence of the learning process so don’t expect a learning world to be a perfect world, a world without risks and without mistakes.

How often, with our family and with our team, do we take the short term, expedient option of telling someone what to do, rather than the slightly longer term but ultimately more beneficial choice of helping them to learn and to grow?

Do you want to grow a generation of Johnny’s or Jimmy”s?

The fable of Johnny and Jimmy is a cornerstone of my coaching philosophy but I cannot take credit for it. It is based upon a story Sir John Whitmore told me a few years ago. As a great coach he helped me see something I was probably always aware of but couldn’t really see, and in so doing he helped me make better future choices. That is great coaching.