Leaders Who Cry Wolf

Growling Angry Wolf

Leaders Who Cry Wolf May Leave Their Flock to be Eaten

As the story goes a child shepherd, seeking attention, cries false alarms of “Wolf! Wolf!” on several occasions.  Over time, the townspeople and neighbors learn to ignore his cries and soon, stop responding at all.  As a result, when a wolf really does come and the boy shouts for help again, he’s left to fend for himself.  The wolf eats the flock and, in some versions, even eats the boy.  This tale offers wisdom to us in a business context as well.

Have you ever seen someone jump from fire drill to fire drill because their boss believed every issue was a crisis?  Often, this stems from the culture of the organization and the overreaction is simply passed down the chain of command.  Regardless of their source, constant fire drills may:

1. Burnout employees

2. Reduce creativity and innovation

3. Emphasize expedience over quality

So what can you do in response to unending cries of “crisis”?  Here’s a couple ideas that may help:

1. Clarify Priorities – Ask your boss which “emergency” must be addressed first, calling attention to the potential of multiple emergencies you must address.

2. Define Timelines – Be sure to understand by what date / time each emergency must be addressed and the driver fot that time.  By understanding the driver behind timelines, you’ll be better equipped to juggle priorities as you hear more cries of “wolf”.

3. Gauge Others – If you’re not sure something is really a crisis, observe how others, especially your peers and those of your boss are responding to the matter.  Communicate the response to your boss in this framework (for example, “Jason’s boss has given him a longer timeline – are we aligned to deliver on the same date?”).

Certainly, there are plenty of true emergencies in business.  The trick seems to be learning to distinguish between an actual crisis and exaggerated enthusiasm.  With the right response, hopefully we can avoid losing our sheep when the real wolf comes.

Question: Have you had a boss that cried Wolf?  How do you manage expectations in similar  situations?

2017-04-29T04:58:05+00:00 Servant Leadership|3 Comments

About the Author:

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder ModernServantLeader.com – the leading blog on servant leadership and top 35 site for any leadership topic, globally. Ben also speaks and consults on IT and management topics for a large variety of clients. Find out more about him at https://ModernServantLeader.com.


  1. MrLich February 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    I would add a couple more points:

    4. Define Expectations: When possible, service catalogue provided by your group can help keep people from expecting too much in too short a time. Help them manage these scheduling conflicts by letting them know how much time you need to do 'your part'.

    5. Provide perspective: The 'do more with less' is causing a lot of stress for folks and they find themselves saying things like "I can't possibly do X without Y. Please make Y happen NOW NOW NOW!" My boss had a great way of dealing with this lack of perspective: he would simply ask: "We handle requests in the order they are received. If you would like to escalate your issue, please provide an explanation of the impact to the _entire business_ if your issue is not escalated." This often provides people with the perspective they need to understand that they're part of a greater whole. It's amazing how many of those 'emergencies' can be handled by the very people demanding that they be looked at immediately.

    • BLichtenwalner February 25, 2010 at 12:22 am - Reply

      Great additions Matt. I especially like framing each "emergency" in the perspective of how it impacts the entire company. I can see how that would dispel many false alarms.

  2. […] not. Instead, these boss’s like to squawk a lot to call attention to themselves. Similar to managers who cry wolf, seagull managers want attention so they may perceived as someone important. As a result, if you […]

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