monkey in the mirror

Monkey in the Mirror

“The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.” – Warren G. Bennis

It’s unlikely Wolfgang Kohler had any reason to believe that when he conducted his now famous monkey experiments on Canary Island in the early 1900’s, he was providing us, almost a century later, with a powerful symbol of what it takes to win in today’s world.  Kohler, a psychologist, arranged an experimental cage in which he placed several different sized boxes and other objects.  He then hung a plump bunch of bananas high in the cage so they would be inaccessible to the monkeys.  After releasing the monkeys into the cage, it didn’t take them long to notice their favorite delicacy positioned high above their heads.  Most of the monkeys proceeded to jump around, whooping and hollering.  Although all the monkeys had their gazes firmly fixed on the bananas, none of them even came close to possessing them.

But it turns out one pair of monkeys was different than the others.

Instead of swinging from the side of the cage and jumping for the bananas without any real chance of achieving success, these two sat and quietly absorbed all that was arrayed around them. Then they made their bold move.

The only way you can ever expect to be more and do more with your life is to understand that sometimes, you have to be willing to go above and beyond what others are doing around you.

While all the other monkeys were busy doing the same old thing, the two thoughtful monkeys began collecting the boxes that were strewn across the cage. After dragging them to the middle, they then rearranged them one on top of the other. And just like that, this pair of innovative primate engineers were able to easily reach the bunch of delicious bananas, much to the delight of their less creative monkey friends.

The Lesson

From a very early age we are conditioned to believe its okay to go along if it will help us get along. And frequently this works for us. Unfortunately, most of us never break out of this type of thinking.  As a result, we are like the majority of the monkeys in the story whose inability to deviate from the status quo left them hungrily staring at a delicious prize that was seemingly out of reach.

What I find particularly noteworthy about Kohler’s experiment is that, as is often the case, the solution to the problem (in this case, building a ladder out of the boxes), was right before their eyes the entire time. Only two monkeys out of the entire group, however, chose to look beyond their circumstances. Seeing the boxes not only for what they were, but also for what they could be.

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, they make them.” Be that person.

The only way you can ever expect to be more and do more with your life is to understand that sometimes, you have to be willing to go above and beyond what others are doing around you. Taking the path of least resistance or settling for “good enough” just because that’s what everyone else is doing just won’t bring home the bananas. So be willing to take a risk. Don’t be afraid to unleash your entrepreneurial spirit on the world. Choose to live life by your rules, not someone else’s. As George Bernard Shaw so aptly reminds us, “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, they make them.” Be that person.

For you leaders and managers reading this, there’s another bonus lesson from this story. If you want to take your organization to the next level, look for those in your ranks who are willing to think differently, act boldly and do more. Find those innovative “monkeys” in your midst and promote them while passing the close-minded “monkeys” to your competitors…and watch who ends up with the bigger bunch of bananas at the end of the day.


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Image Credit

John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,

  • Chris R Stricklin

    Incredible Lessons from Wolfgang
    Kohler’s monkeys that holds true in business and leadership today–the answer usually is right in front of us! We just have to remain open-mined and fully access the situation
    and facts as they are…and not just how we initially perceive them.

  • Margy

    You have a wonderfully engaging writing style. I enjoy the way your stories demonstrate wonderful life lessons.

  • Ben Simonton

    The problem you address is very common because our authoritarian society has literally forced ~95% of us to be conformists, some more and some less. Since birth we are told be like this, look like this, act like this, think like this – OR ELSE! To escape the OR ELSE most of us conform to what they want. Conforming becomes so automatic we don’t even know we are doing it – the “go along to get along” syndrome.

    In the workplace, conformists detect the value standards reflected in what they experience and use those standards as how to do their work and treat their customers, each other, and their bosses – how industriously, honestly, respectfully, cooperatively, openly, knowledgeably, etc., etc. for all values.

    Most of what we experience consists of the support management provides to us – tools, computer programs, training, coaching, directives, orders, policies, bureaucracy, visions, goals, targets, rewards, and the like. All of these messages of value standards constitute management’s leadership. Unfortunately, many of these are just different forms of telling us what to do. Since no one likes being told what to do and consider it to be grossly disrespectful of us, it is no surprise that conformists are led to treat their work with disrespect.

    Fortunately, it is relatively easy to lead us to stop conforming and wasting the huge amount of brainpower conforming requires.

    Best regards, Ben
    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

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