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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

What Do Monkeys Have to do with Me, as a Leader?

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #76

My friend and colleague, Tod Kline, sent me a copy of the management fable of changing mindset by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad and suggested that it would be a good topic for the PLDC newsletter. Like all fables, this short story highlights how monkeys’ behavior aligns with the resistance to change that occurs in humans. Hamel and Prahalad are the authors of Competing for the Future.

As you read, remember that this is a fable, and there is no verification that the experiment happened. That is not the point! Anyone who has attempted to implement a transformation change knows the message of changing mindset.


Changing Mindsets

Stuart Ewen from Changing Mindsets tells the story as follows...

I love the story about the monkeys from Gary Hamel’s and C. K. Prahalad’s fable. It’s about four monkeys sitting in a cage staring at a bunch of bananas, accessible only by steps hanging from the roof. Whenever the monkeys try to climb the steps to reach the bananas, a blast of cold water blocks them. After a time, realizing there’s little point in trying to get the “forbidden fruit,” they understandably give up. Then the organizers remove the water hose and replace one of the original monkeys with a new monkey. On seeing the bananas, the new monkey starts up the steps, but the other primates, being social creatures, pull it down before it gets blasted by water. The new monkey is startled, looks around, and repeatedly tries to climb the ladder, only to be constantly pulled back. Finally, the new monkey accepts the group code of conduct and doesn’t bother to go for the bananas.

Over the coming weeks, the organizers removed the remaining original monkeys, one at a time, and replaced them with new monkeys that had never seen the water. By the end of the experiment, with perfectly ripe bananas sitting on the platform above and monkeys that have never seen a jet of water, none of the animals tries to climb the steps.

They’ve all learned the unwritten rule: “you don’t grab the bananas around here.”

This illustrates that our beliefs and habits are ingrained by past management practices and remain ingrained far beyond the existence of the rules that formed them, even when new management practices have been put in place.


Center for Executive Excellence

In this article from the Center for Executive Excellence, the author shares the same fable and quotes a Harvard Business Review. Three things must be in place for a successful change to occur.

  1. The training is evident and championed by senior leaders.

  2. Conditions are created for learners to apply what they’ve studied.

  3. Systems are put in place that help sustain the learning.

The following sentence has implications for leaders

” too many leaders want the transformation to happen at unrealistic speeds, with minimal effort, and everywhere but within themselves.”


Fahrenheit Advisors: 5 Monkeys in a Cage (and one crucial business lesson)

In his article, 5 Monkeys in a Cage, the author, Russ Gambrel, cites a 1966 University of Wisconsin-Madison experiment involving five monkeys in a large cage that mirrors the fable. He writes,

“and with that, one of the greatest business lessons of all time was born.”

I believe there is a multitude of lessons that can be learned from the monkeys’ fable. Instead of listing my leadership thoughts, I challenge you to reflect on the following questions.

  1. What or who represents the cold water in your organization?

  2. What do the bananas represent in your organization?

  3. Why is it important to change from the “that is the way we’ve always done it” mindset?

  4. Why are the monkeys keeping one monkey from the bananas? Are they trying to protect the monkey, or do they not want it to get the bananas?

  5. What significance does the fable have for your organization and you as a leader?


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