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Selling the Cow: The Five Pillars of Disruptive Thinking



Based on Graetz's model that strategic thinking is "to seek innovation and imagine new and very different futures that lead to redefining of strategy", Selling The Cow takes a look at the parable of Jack and The Beanstalk as the archetype for disruptive thinking. This book identifies five key principles found within this parable that are the cornerstone of disruptive thinking. By using metaphorical comparisons such as the unobserved history of why Jack and his mother were struggling in the first place, to the final outcome, Selling The Cow uses a novel concept to introduce the need for disruptive thinking in individuals and organizations.

One Bad Mother

Disruptive Thought in Great Leadership

There lived a poor widow, whose cottage stood in a country village a long distance from London, for many years. The widow had only a child named Jack, whom she gratified in everything. The consequence of her partiality was that Jack paid little attention to anything she said, and he was heedless and extravagant. His follies were not owing to bad disposition but to his mother never having chided him.  As she was not wealthy, and he would not work, she was obliged to support herself and him by selling everything she had.  At last nothing remained, only a cow.

Edwin Sidney Hartland 1890

From the beginning of this fable, the very first thing that we are presented with is a small family consisting of a mother and her son who are in need. As to the specifics of how such great need arose, we are not given all of the details, but can make some general assumptions based on the evidence before us.

Our fable tells us that the mother figure consists of a widow who is in poor financial condition. While we are not told how her husband passed away, we can deduce that she has been left with property and some meager means with which to survive.

Now when we peer even deeper into our simple fable we are given insight that during this time of great financial strain within the widow’s household, there appears to be some general market activity that is taking place outside the home. We can make this assumption because our fable instructs us that the poor, widowed mother instructs her son to go and sell the cow for a small profit. So, from this small amount of information we can make the logical conclusion that things were hard for Jack and his mother, but not necessarily for everyone else. 

In this market that Jack is instructed to travel to, where others perhaps bought and sold goods daily, we can assume (in good faith) people found this market profitable to meet their means. What is interesting to observe is that with all of this local market activity, others were able to reap the benefits and make a living. However, due to their current conditions, we find that Jack and his mother are not in a position to benefit from this marketplace on a continual basis. They simply utilize its means as a place to liquidate their final assets and thus end their ability to profit from sales of their revenue-producing resources (but never contemplate a form of continual monthly income).

Now in the 1856 rendition of the parable, it paints Jack as a young man who is unruly and rebellious because of his mother’s failure to discipline him. From a high-level perspective, the picture that the storyteller is attempting to paint for the reader is that of a mother who has made some bad decisions. In our generation of ungrateful children, who receive luxurious vehicles for their sixteenth birthday, it may be hard to comprehend the moral values of such an error as spoiling a child. Though, in the context of the time period in which the fable was written, such action speaks of a serious fault concerning the woman regarding the raising of her son: mollycoddling a child. And while this common mistake can be seen today in many single mothers who attempt to compensate for a missing father figure, it could also be said that they posses a child, who through guilt, they attempt to “gratify in everything” as does the widow in the fable. 

       Albeit she was a widow and suffered a disadvantage, it might not be far reaching to assume that on the passing away of her husband, they were not left in dire straights. While some widows may be left little to no income and may be immediately affected financially by the passing away of a loved one due to funeral costs and other expenses, there are also some widows who receive large life insurance payouts, but because of an inability to manage those finances, soon end up in poor financial conditions.

         And while the text does give evidence to a passing of time between the death of the husband (she was a widow as opposed to becoming a widow in the middle of the fable), there are other issues. We can also see through her parental deficiency regarding Jack and her failure to manage finances that they had arrived at such a point partially due to the mother’s negligence while being in charge of the family finances. This negligence was further compounded by her failure to make proper decisions to insure the future survival of her family.

      So our fable, which when read hastily can elicit our sympathy for the down and out poor, widowed mother, now evolves into a critical lesson on questionable leadership. Strong evidence exists that Jack’s mother may have failed to exercise proper decision-making, and as a result, things did not go well for the family under her leadership.

Now if one should doubt the evidence presented as to proof of her leadership failure (as it is hard to deduce much evidence given the brief history), what should also be dually noted, are the instructions which she gives to her son Jack, since they speak volumes to her style and method of leadership: “Go sell the cow that we may have something to eat”.

What is so incredulous in her plan is that she fails to communicate any future goal for meeting the needs of the household. Her plan is simply for that of immediate survival without any forethought for the future. Her mindset of “let’s eat the cow and die” is perhaps the greatest evidence that we have before us of her lack of foresight.

     Before there was the capitalist mantra of “Let’s cut down the all the forest for paper and we’ll worry about planting trees tomorrow,” there was a mother who sold her only cow. Now, seeing that cows give milk, it is naturally assumed that this would have been for them a somewhat residual source of provision. But the mother’s “ingenious” plan is to liquidate this recurring source of gain for a large, one-time profit and involves no communication to her son Jack of what would be done with those future profits.

So what initially persisted in our minds as a scenario concerning a poor, widowed mother that just simply wants to sell her last cow to feed her child, through more inspection becomes a portrait of some of the ills that exist in modern day leadership.


When we read this narrative, the thought of Jack’s mother as a bad leader evades our radar for several reasons. The first is social sympathy. Being that she is a “widow” and is placed in a situation of which she did not choose, fails to allow most individuals to perceive her as the leader of her family. But any individual who assumes a position of leadership by whatever means must eventually come to the grips that they are a leader due to the position bestowed upon them, and as such must function successfully in that role for the benefit of others.

It has always been my experience that the great need of social services in our day and hour is not more financial investment, but rather a strengthening of the quality of leadership that exists within some of the structures of these organizations. When young people with visions of grandeur enter into the realm of social services they often do so with the mantra of “I want to help people”. However, the missing element of many individuals who require social assistance is not just financial assistance, but in many instances the need is also for individuals who are able to provide strong leadership examples and roles that others can benefit from.

Another reason we may fail to perceive her as an incompetent leader may be due to our resistance to be critical of her decisions. When we look at family situations, we are more prone to a humanistic philosophy that accepts the fact that parental figures need not strive for great leadership of their household. Because there is no certificate for being a father, it is easier to simply say that a father is a father regardless of his ability to lead his family and those that fail to be good fathers are simply the product of their environment. This second reasoning follows the first in that if we do not perceive the mother in our fable as being a leader, we are less prone to judge the decisions she makes.

When individuals begin to think disruptively, one of the main pathos they must contemplate are the decisions being made by leadership. When business managers encounter this this type of thinking in their employees, it can be viewed as a form of mutiny. But often times good employees will question decisions made by leadership in order to better understand the principles and objectives that the leader is trying to achieve.

In fact, it could be said that employees who function without ever questioning decisions, are simply not interested in obtaining an understanding of the goals or principles involved. These people often have no desire to provide a better service or make a better product. We use the term “yes men” in our attempts to describe those who we deem to lack any critical judgment. While they may function in satisfying the immediate needs of an organization, they will eventually falter in any instances where the goals of that institution are not properly communicated. The “yes men” culture will insure that the organization will not grow, mature, or be competent to face emerging challenges in the marketplace vis-à-vis competitors.


At one company that I worked for, there was the undying tale of a salesman who quit the company in bravado fashion because of a disagreement with leadership and took a young CSR with him. This resulted in him starting his own rival company that he later sold for millions of dollars within a few years.

The reason for his departure was quite interesting. The company that he originally worked for was ranked top in the world in their industry and had been started shortly after World War II. They were known in the industry and had a corporate environment that boasted of top sales people.

Their sales process consisted of the sales personnel going out to engage the customer, and then submitting a request for a quote to an engineer back at the head office. The engineer would take 1 to 2 days to review the quote (this involved also asking the sales person to clarify any questions regarding the requirements, which would then be forwarded to the customer). This usually resulted in the customer having the official quote within 2-3 business days.

This formula worked for everyone in the company except this one particular sales person who was an engineer by trade. When this sales person/engineer would engage the customer, he would provide a quote right there on the spot as well as resolve any customer requests beyond the scope of what their engineers were able to perform. Because he knew the industry and what the customer was requesting, he gained their confidence and would close the deal before they had time to consider the competition.

Within his time at the company, he became one of the top sales personnel. But he was angered that more business was not being generated by educating the other sales personnel about the engineering process. So, in his frustrated state, he decided to meet with the owners of the company and tell them of his intentions to train the rest of the sales staff to close deals.

The owners, being somewhat taken aback by his attempted wise counsel, immediately viewed it as questioning their leadership and shot down his proposal in a rather harsh manner.

What quickly followed was this rejected salesman running to the middle of the customer service area, and openly ranting his frustration with the company and boldly proclaiming his desire to leave and start a rival company and offering to take anyone that would be willing to join him; a young customer service rep agreed, and the rest is history.

Over the next few years, this rambunctious duo formed a rival company that grew to be the 7th ranked company in the world within its industry and was acquired by a large parent company for several millions of dollars.

The previous company tried to complain and launched legal action, but the moral of the story is that these individuals achieved a success outside of the organization, which they were not able to achieve within the organization.

The thought of an employee leaving one company to find greater success in another venture is perhaps one of the most chilling and yet sober revelations because of the mark that it makes against leadership in retaining talent. Disruptive leadership will always facilitate individuals whom question their methods because they understand that honest communication breeds understanding. 

When one thinks of Ronald Regan and his political career within US politics, even those opposed to his political views can admire the candor of his great leadership skills. Yet when one thinks about Reagan, they usually think of him as the great Republican but fail to remember that he actually began his career as a registered Democrat in the early ’50s. What caused him to make such a drastic change? While some may suggest it was the ills within the Democratic Party, if you study the politics of that time period, there was no major exodus of political members defecting from the party. What made the difference is that Regan was a man who was able to think disruptively, and as such he was able to be critical of the democratic leadership of his day; as such, he saw early on the need to break ranks with the Democratic party.


From the years 2009 to 2011, it could be said that Google suffered from mass defection of some its top engineers. While some might suggest this was due to competition from other camps like Facebook or Microsoft, the reality is that it was rooted in the failure of Google as an organization to produce any homegrown products of substance. It is one thing to say that you have a culture that fosters creative ideas by giving your engineers every Friday to work on personal projects, but when you fail to bring any of those ideas to market, whether under your own umbrella or apart from the organization, creative talent begins to sense a stifling of innovation.

Getting back to our fable, it is interesting to note that the mother attempts to instruct Jack on how to be profitable concerning the market (go down there and sell the last cow) but the problem is that her formula is a sustaining formula and not a winning formula. In other words, her traditional methods of attempting to provide have not shown overwhelming results, and, in fact, have put Jack and herself in financial straights.

Hence, most conventional methods consist of this example: begin from a given project goal, plan the project to meet the goal, then execute the plan in order to meet the project goal. The “How” are many times implemented without considering the “Why”.

And so is it any wonder that Jack attempts to deviate from her instructions once he begins to travel towards the market? While the thought of the captain going down with the ship may have a thought of heroism, it is the wise sailor, who has observed the captain’s failure to address a hole in the hull, that quietly escapes in the last spare dingy.

It was Jack’s decision to deviate from his mother’s leadership instructions that made him a success in the long run. What this parable teaches us is the altruism of life, that in a strategically thinking environment, leadership decisions need to be questioned. While good leaders will expect and even foster this type of environment, those that fear or feel intimidated will continue to resist and then wonder why innovation and creative genius have left their facilities for greener pastures.

About the author

D.W. Small has consulted and lead development projects for several fortune 500 companies in various industries of Pharma, Banking, and Manufacturing. D.W. Small is currently the co-founder of ClarityPark - the online organizer, and is a strong advocate of developer lead organizations. view profile

Published on May 18, 2020

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Genre: Business & Management