The Emperor's New Tailor

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

The Emperor entered the room, followed by his overseer. A nod here, a wave there and for a brief moment the serfs felt a part of royalty. The Emperor spoke words of encouragement and the serfs responded with optimistic forecasts. They discussed issues and the overseer’s whip made it clear that problems did not exist. As the Emperor nodded his approval everyone believed, if only for a moment, that addressing issues was the same as solving problems. Then came my turn to speak. I rose slowly, unsure how to behave in my new job, and without forethought cried out “the Emperor has no clothes!”

The air stood still. The silence was palpable as all eyes turned to the Emperor. In all this time no one had ever dared to speak the obvious. With shocked looks and quiet smirks everyone waited to see my blasphemy punished. The Emperor shifted nervously and the overseer hefted his whip. “Ahem,” the Emperor cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I wondered why it was always so drafty in here. Do you know anything about tailoring?” That is how I became the Emperor’s new tailor.

As the new software manager I was at the turning point as we transitioned from the old style of management to the new. The greatest obstacle was that the employees themselves felt uncomfortable with the idea of empowerment and resisted making their own decisions. When asked their opinion, they saw only the overseer and his whip and assumed they were being tested. Our management genuinely wanted to delegate decision making authority to the employees; but since employees feared to take authority, projects were often as threadbare as the Emperor’s new clothes. By my speaking up, the Emperor was better able to assess the situation and use my talents to direct the making of a better wardrobe.

All this empowerment is not without its price. After being given twenty yards of cloth from which to make clothing, the overseer said “the Empress is in need of a new sash, the furniture needs recovering, and the faucets need fixing.” Yet no more cloth was given and no plumber was provided. Possessing neither the resources nor the time to do these tasks myself, I took another bold step. Seizing the whip of authority from the overseer’s hand I rounded up the spinners and plumbers myself. Before long they were producing additional cloth and fixing the faucets. I realized that management had given us not only the responsibility, but also the authority to manage our tasks. The overseer’s whip was not there to punish dissenters, but to grant authority to perform our jobs.

Today job security is based more on performance than on seniority. We can not afford to stand idly by while the Emperor goes threadbare, but must step forward and use the authority given to us. That means taking the initiative and forming our own teams, rather than waiting for management to assign tasks. We must take responsibility for our own performance and work together for team success. In the long run, I believe the Emperor will be very pleased with his new wardrobe and the experience will make me a better tailor.