The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey

Was Aesop a school principal? Who knows? (See Wikipedia for mythical bio of Aesop.) Whatever the truth about him may be, he certainly has something to teach us.

I found proof that he knew something of what it means to be a principal. During one of our typically bizarre dinner conversations, my wife mentioned this fable to prove her point. Since I didn’t know the fable and my wife is always right, I looked it up. I can no longer remember the discussion that night, but this simple story has a tough lesson for all of us principals.

The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey, from Aesop’s Fables
A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said:
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?”

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them,
Please all, and you will please none.”

Please all, and you will please none. Many principals that I know really like to please; they really like to make people happy. Many principals I know fell into a trap at the beginning of their admin career of trying to avoid confrontation and keep people happy. Sounds like a good idea except that it isn’t.

Principals often have to make decisions that have multiple, opposing factors to weigh. We make some really tough decisions that we know will make some people unhappy. Principals are not there to make everyone happy.

In the end, most principals that I know fall back on what they value most whether it pleases everyone or not: we do what is best for the children. If that does not please some folks, so be it.

If only the Man knew what he valued most.

P.S. You can also see a great performance of this fable: Mendota 2nd Graders on YouTube


  1. Lyn Hilt said:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. I learned the lesson rather quickly that you can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time. That being said, when your decisions do cause people to become unhappy, there has to be a plan for dealing with the fall-out of that. Helping people understand the justifications for your decisions is key. Being supportive and showing them that the decisions will help your organization move in the right direction should (hopefully) get everyone on the same page!

    October 28, 2010
    • Lyn,

      You are so right. By being as transparent as possible and communicating vision and rationale as much as possible, we can minimize the number who are unhappy. Sometimes, I would go to an unhappy person after a decision and have additional conversation to smooth feathers.

      Even with all that effort, I learned that there are some people in the world who seem to try really hard to be unhappy. I have not had much luck with them yet. I will keep trying.

      Thanks for commenting.

      October 28, 2010
  2. jerick said:

    there are many people who are fault finders, they are looking for your fault not the good things that you have done. thanks

    August 1, 2012
    • Larry Fliegelman said:

      Good point. Thank you.

      August 3, 2012

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