The Emperor is Still Naked

Do you remember the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? It’s a nineteenth century Danish fairy tale (based on a fourteenth century Spanish tale) by Hans Christensen Andersen. For you Disney buffs, he’s the same guy who penned “The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen” a.k.a. “Frozen.”

If you’ve heard the narrative, you know it’s about some clever weavers who con the emperor into thinking his magic, non-existent garments are only invisible to people who are unfit for their roles, or not very bright. When the day of the big reveal comes, the emperor parades his non-outfit down the main street before all his loyal subjects. Because no one wants to come off as incompetent or stupid, no one will state the obvious.

But then a child, who doesn’t fully grasp all the complex power dynamics in play, blurts out “He has no clothes!” And finally, everyone is able to admit: the emperor looks silly, he’s gullible and vain and because of our fear of losing status, we were complicit in the lie.

Of course, the one truth-teller in the story has to be a child. The adults here have too much to lose in offending the king: power, position, even their lives. Yes, there is danger in telling the truth. But the greater danger may be in affirming the lie.

Proverbs 17:26-27 says this “It is wrong to punish the godly for being good or to flog leaders for being honest. A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered.”

The writer here fully concedes that good people are penalized for their goodness and leaders are beaten for their candor. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it should. It’s wrong. Period. “Nice guys finish last” and “Shoot the messenger” cultures don’t celebrate character or truth telling. The exist to affirm, promote and defend the status quo to the last round.

Maybe you’ve been punished for being good: at the office, on a sports team, in a relationship. Your commitment to your moral compass cost you a raise, a position as a starter or a third date. Your desire to see the truth and tell it (gently, directly, respectfully) may not always work in your favor. People with different, or lesser, views on ethics might beat you up for it.

But know this: It’s wrong. Always. And if you’ve ever tasted this injustice, make sure to don’t pay it forward to the people you lead, oversee or influence. In the end, the truth is always your friend and honor is always, always worth it.

Craig Custance