The Grimm Brothers wrote the story, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” a tale of a Shoemaker who, although he worked very hard, had used up the end of his resources and only had enough leather to make one more pair of shoes. Exhausted from the stress of thinking about the future, he cut the last of the leather and went to bed, thinking tomorrow would be his last day in business.

However, when he woke, his wife and him discovered the leather had been made into a beautiful pair of shoes! They were not sure what to think of the new shoes, but they put them out for sale and soon after a customer walked in and fell in love with them. With the money they made, they purchased new leather and that evening, again, left out the cut pieces and woke in the morning to find finished, stunningly beautiful shoes. He was able, once again, to sell them quickly. Night after night this happens. Their business excels and months go by before the Shoemaker and his wife decide to stay up in attempt to discover who has been making the shoes all along.

As the clock strikes midnight, the Shoemaker and his wife, hidden from sight, see the door open and two elves dance into the workshop and begin to make the most beautiful shoes. The elves are in tattered clothes and barefoot. They worked quickly and happily and then, just as fast as they had appeared, they were gone, leaving behind perfectly crafted shoes.

The next day the Shoemaker and his wife spoke about the most unusual and helpful guests they had. His wife recommended that since the elves have been such a helpful addition to their life, they should provide them with proper clothing to keep them warm and at least a pair of new shoes. They went to work creating clothing for their guests and when they were finished, again resumed their hiding place and observed as the elves found their gifts. They put their new clothes on, and seemingly happily, left the workshop without building another pair of shoes. And with that, they never returned to the workshop again.

Every time I hear this story I think of the contradicting leadership traits the Shoemaker has. On one hand, he is not transparent about his product or process and in a way is autonomously taking credit for the end result. On the other hand, however, he is providing the resources necessary for the elves to complete their task, which they seem happy to do, in essence creating a team-like atmosphere.

Also, for months, the Shoemaker and his wife are pleased with the result and never think to look into the who, the what, the how, or the why. I think of formal leaders who are only interested in the answers when something has started to go wrong, opposed to mending the roof while the sun is shining.

The Shoemaker and his wife do observe a need on the elves end and work hard to provide them with extra clothes and shoes, presumably to keep them safe and comfortable, but at the same time, without the conversation, end up losing their engagement. The Shoemaker and his wife never learn why the elves leave, nor do they know what they could have done to make them stay.

The Shoemaker and his wife lived a comfortable life and the elves appear to have gotten what they needed, so I ask you- is the Shoemaker a strong leader?



Danielle Aaronson

Danielle Aaronson

Danielle’s mission is to inspire leaders to make intentional choices that move them to positive action. She speaks at conferences, management summits, and leadership programs as well as facilitates efforts with executives and senior leaders at organizations seeking to influence their culture. Her mantra, “be the change you wish to see in the world” has allowed her to strive every day to be the best she can be and help others recognize the potential they have to make a positive difference. @deaaronson

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