Cape Town chronicles – II: when being kind is cruel!

Kindness. Cruelty. Two opposite words. To those who’ve experienced them in one or the other way, these are two different worlds. Where one exists, the other doesn’t. Or at least that’s how I used to think. But this past Monday, I learnt something that gave me a whole new perspective on these two aspects.

A few weeks ago, a student group at TSiBA approached me for some advice on their business. Their idea won an entrepreneurship contest. But the organisers wanted them to turnover a certain level of sales of their product to claim the prize. The product these students have at hand (which I can’t disclose) needs refinement. The prize they won is an equipment that will help them refine the product. Now, without the equipment, they will need to either make or source a raw material that is not environment-friendly. If they have this equipment, they will be able to make the product in a ‘green’ way. And the students want to be green. It is one of their major value propositions. So they were faced with a dilemma: Should we compromise on our values and sell the product in its current state, which is not environment-friendly, or should we give up the prize?

Last Monday, I was a guest at the Rotary Club of Newlands’ weekly meeting. And I had the opportunity to sit and observe their entrepreneurship meeting. This group of business men was looking for opportunities to help budding entrepreneurs. I thought this could be an opportunity for my student group, and so I pitched my students’ business as an opportunity to these entrepreneurs, in case the students do not secure their prize. The group was excited about the green product idea and was open to help the student group. So, I felt very good about it.

On the way back home, I thanked Jenna (my colleague at TSiBA and a Rotarian; I was her guest at the meeting) for letting me go with her to the meeting, and told her this could be a good help to the student group. While talking about this students’ case we wondered why the contest owners wanted the students to sell the environmentally unfriendly product. We considered multiple possibilities and in the context of one of them Jenna shared with me the story of the little boy and his caterpillar.

One day, playing in his garden, a child found a caterpillar. Fascinated, he took it inside, and put it in a clear big jar. He nurtured it every day and took good care of it. A few days later, the caterpillar started building the cocoon. When he showed it to his mother, she told him how the caterpillar would undergo changes to become a butterfly. This fascinated the boy even more. He got very attached to his caterpillar and watched it all the time, eagerly waiting for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly.

Soon, one day, the cocoon broke and the butterfly started emerging from it. The boy was instantly excited, but his excitement was short-lived. The butterfly struggled to come out, and this saddened the boy. It was hard for the butterfly, it desperately struggled to break the cocoon and emerge out, but it couldn’t. It kept trying. The boy became impatient. He couldn’t understand why the butterfly couldn’t come out. He thought it was stuck and just couldn’t make its way out of the little opening in the cocoon. So, he decided to help, ran to his mother, brought a pair of scissors, and very carefully nipped through the hole in the cocoon to enlarge it. The butterfly came out, but it was not what he expected. Its wings were small, and the body swollen. He was sad but hoped that in a few days the body would shrink and wings would grow large enough for it to fly. But that never happened. The butterfly struggled for the rest of its life, crawling with its swollen body and wings that were not strong enough for it to fly. It never flew and eventually died.

The tiny hole in the cocoon is the key to butterfly’s metamorphosis. The struggle that it faces to get through that small opening, forces the fluid from its body into the wings and one day when the wings are strong enough for its body, it breaks free from the cocoon and flies out. But the little boy’s caterpillar never got to that stage. The child’s kindness subverted the natural struggle that the caterpillar needed in order to develop the necessary strength in its wings and break from the cocoon.

We all go through struggles in life and it is just natural for us to feel sympathy when someone we know struggles. And we don’t stop there. We try to help them in whatever ways we can, to alleviate their struggles. That is precisely what I was trying to do for my students. So when I heard this short story from Jenna, it struck me instantly that by doing so, I was, in a metaphorical sense, widening the tiny hole in their cocoon to help them come out, without realising that their wings are not yet strong enough to fly if they come out of their cocoon.

An important lesson learnt about the journey of an entrepreneur. The long term success of an entrepreneur hinges very much on how s/he responds to the struggles. In fact, I wonder now whether an entrepreneur can build a sustainable business if all the resources required are made available to him/her. How s/he finds solutions when the required resources are inadequate/not available is such a big part of her/his learning process. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the idea of helping entrepreneurs. All I am saying is perhaps we should not offer help before they try. They need to be immensely driven and should have explored on their own to find solutions to their challenges, and any help that is offered should be a result of their dogged determination to seek that help. Being kind before they explore options to find solutions is tantamount to being cruel to them.

I’ve been reflecting over this story all this week, and I realised that this is relevant to the growth of not just an entrepreneur but any person, and I felt I gained an important insight into leadership. Struggles help us discover who we are, what we are capable of. Through struggles we find out what works for us and what not; we realise our potential. As leaders we enable our proteges to realise their potential. I feel convinced that a major part of our job as leaders has to do with kindness. The kinder we are to our proteges, the crueler we will be to their growth. Sounds so ironical, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it is true.

Till next time,
santom!

3 Comments

  1. Helping where help is needed is good and should be done. I think the key is not to spoon feed an entrepreneur. Tell him how you think they should go about a certain problem, but dont do it for them….

  2. Hey Santosh thats a nice analogy. I feel the same about entrepreneurial culture in West Africa. Do you think it works the same way in other entrepreneurial hubs or Africa is a special case?

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