Leadership Lessons from a Cracked Pot

A woman carried 2 pots to gather water every day. One worked perfectly while the other leaked through a crack. But it was the cracked pot which helped the most.

Leaders can learn a lot from a cracked potSunday, I heard a parable about a cracked pot that provided a great perspective on servant leadership. I’d like to share my own take on that parable with you:

Our Servant Leader

There was an elderly woman who had the responsibility of gathering water for her family each day. Because the family lived in a very remote and dry region, she had to walk far to get the water. She could only carry two pots at a time and so, needed to make the trip every day.

The Two Pots

The elderly woman did not have the means for new materials. As a result, only one pot was in perfect working order. The other pot had a crack running half way down the side. The first  was the envy of the latter. Making matters worse, the whole one often belittled the other, critiquing it of lacking performance:

“You are a sorry excuse for a pot! Every day you lose half your water. I will give you a poor performance review. You’re not even meeting half of your objectives and you are draining our resources. You need to be replaced.”

Of course, these negative remarks wore on the cracked pot. Over time, the poor pot began to believe the negative feedback about itself. Until, one day, the cracked pot nearly gave up and apologized to the elderly woman, asking to be replaced:

“My lady, I am so sorry for failing you! Every day, we walk to and from the well and I can not hold on to all the water you place in me. I am a poor performer. You must be awfully disappointed in me. Please, replace me with another, newer model, so you can be more successful!”

Hidden Strengths

Upon hearing this, the lady gasped. She now realized the cracked pot did not fully understand its role:

“But, cracked pot, you provide so many benefits to me and our family that you do not realize! Haven’t you noticed all the flowers and vegetables growing up on your side of the path? I knew you dripped water and so I planted seeds along your side of our path. Your water nurtured those plants and vegetables. I picked the flowers to make our home beautiful and the vegetables to feed our family. The other pot may seem more complete, but I would have to stop and tip it every time I wanted to give the plants a drink. In contrast, water flows from you perfectly – at a consistent and steady pace.”

The cracked pot was so excited at hearing this, it never again doubted itself. It ignored the negative commentary cast by it’s peer and continued to feed the plants and vegetables every day.

Cracked Pot Leadership

There are several lessons we can take away from this parable. For example, leaders should reflect these attributes:

1. Share Your Weaknesses: Leaders need to share their weaknesses to develop others. Like the cracked pot, leaders should be comfortable with their “scars” and bare them as lessons for others. What team member could learn more from your experience?

2. Define Clear Expectations: To be a great contributor, team members need to know exactly what is expected of them. In our parable, the pot did not even know it was expected to water the plants. Who should you be more clear about expectations with?

3. Recognize Hidden Strengths: Many employees come to us with benefits beyond their job description, such as positive attitudes, innovative thinking or a great ability to motivate. The cracked pot thought the leaking water was a weakness, when it fact, it was a strength. Who do you need to help recognize their own strengths?

4. Balance Reviews: 360 degree reviews help ensure balanced feedback. However, like the cracked pot, make sure the perspectives you gather are not all from a single project, or perspective. Who should you ask for additional feedback on your team?

5. Capture a Comprehensive ROI: Financial results are important, but they are not the only attribute to define success. The elderly woman realized the amount of water delivered to the house was not the only success factor. What other attributes define your comprehensive return on investment?

 Question: What other lessons do you see in the cracked pot parable and how will you apply these lessons in your own leadership?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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