By Yasmin Crowther

Driving through a forest on the edge of Dartmoor last night, the car’s lights picked up the eyes of creatures in the undergrowth – a startled deer, then a fox bolting for cover. When I stopped and wound down the window, all I could hear was the distant rush of a river and the call of owls.  Moments before, I had been listening to the news on the radio and thinking about the role of business in society and how it is framed – from pure profit motive to triple bottom line and shared value. Something about the nocturnal drive got me to thinking about fairy tales and if they can shed light on the corporate’s journey.

Here’s where I got to:

Jack & The Beanstalk as a myth of demons coming home to roost

The tale of Jack and the Beanstalk seems to be a fairy tale of endless growth; where a life of hard work is exchanged for magical seeds that, when planted in the ground, grow eternally fruitful up into the skies.

But there is a serious downside. If you clamber up the vast unfettered vines of profit, at the top, you find only disaster – a devastated landscape dominated by a monster in his castle, looking out for human bones to make his bread.

The corporate allegory should be obvious: excessive unfettered growth – far from being the easy road to endless, consequence-free riches – risks devouring the society from whence it has sprung. We’ve learned this one, right?

Cinderella as a tale of unexpected values and rewards

Cinderella is a fairy tale that perhaps best befits those with an emerging awareness of the need to be sustainable – to take care of the neglected orphan girl who diligently sorts through seeds and lives in frugality, unlike her ugly sisters who prance and consume like modern celebrities.

The lesson, of course, is that Cinderella is the one whose virtue and value soars over the tale, and who ultimately is chosen to be the most prized princess in the land – albeit a princess who is dependent on the incumbent patriarchy and monarchy to give her due place and recognition.

In the same way that Prince Charming eventually seeks out Cinderella from the scullery, maybe much-needed sustainability solutions will spring from similarly humble and unexpected origins – as long as we have the skills to search them out and foster their success.

Red Riding Hood as a battle between wisdom and deceit

Red Riding Hood works well as a tale about the quest for authenticity and truth.  Red Riding Hood is the most courageous heroine.  Unlike Cinderella, she leaves her safe and predictable confines to venture out into the big bad wood of the world. Her journey is one of care and generosity, almost a social enterprise – a shepherding of resources for her ailing grandmother.

When the little girl wanders off the path in search of more fruit and flowers, she comes across the big bad wolf – a wolf of cruelty, greed, temptation and excess. The wolf leaves Red Riding Hood this time, and goes off to gobble-up her grandmother and lie in wait for more.

Red Riding Hood’s challenge – upon arrival at her grandmother’s cottage– is to interrogate the creature in the bed, to assess if it is authentic and deserving of her gifts or corrupt and exploitative.  She does battle with the wolf, defeats it and lives to tell the tale.

It makes me wonder about other social enterprises and campaign groups that enter into collaborations and partnerships with big business, or even buy-outs, and how they appraise if they are delivering their social value into hands that are trustworthy or that will just gobble them up once and for all!

The Frog Prince as a tale of transformation and just rewards

Finally, the Frog Prince is the story of an ugly frog that helps a Princess retrieve a golden ball, from where she has lost it in a deep, slimy pond.

The Princess eagerly accepts the frog’s help in retrieving the object of great value, but does not want to pay for its services, hoping that she can get away with taking the good without suffering any costs at all.  And yet, when the princess finally does accept that the frog deserves acknowledgement and offers her kiss, she finds that he transforms into a prince and is a source of even greater riches, not of ugliness and inconvenience.

As before, the corporate allegory seems obvious – that internalising externalities or ‘kissing the frog’ is a route to eventual prosperity, however uncomfortable and counter-intuitive it may feel at the time.

Happily ever after?

So the lesson for me from my night time foray through the woods and through some favourite fairy tales is that stories sometimes provide useful frames for looking at the world and thinking about our role in it – as individuals or as organisations.  There is something in the simplicity of a well-trodden fairy tale that reveals contradictions and possibilities effortlessly: we see the big bad wolf in disguise, and we relish his defeat.

I suppose a challenge for us all, in the wild forest of reality, is that we are no longer the safely ensconced readers of a tale, but involved players in a drama that is yet to unfold, and where we are still working out who is the frog and who is the wolf after our blood, and what does that mean for the choices we make in the broad light of day.

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