Catching spider monkeys

This is a story about catching one of the cleverest, cunning, and elusive creatures in the jungle. These creatures were the spider monkeys of South America. They lived high up in the trees and were virtually impossible to catch. As the fable goes, the hunters had terrible problems trying to catch them, until one day they came up with a plan. They found several heavy containers, made a hole no bigger than the arm of the monkey into each, and placed them on the jungle floor. Inside, they put a nut. The monkeys then descended from the trees, saw the nuts in the containers. Once they grabbed the nut at the bottom of the container, their fists were too large to come out of the opening. And the container too heavy for them to carry, so instead of letting go of the nut, they just sat there. The hunters would come back the following day and simply pick them up and throw them in the bag1. Freedom was just a matter letting go of the nut.

Our minds are much like spider monkeys. Clever. Decisive. Stubborn at times. Always checking, analysing and questioning. And more often than not, when our minds are made up, we can refuse to let go of a notion (or a nut) causing us to feel trapped, stuck or even disempowered.

Monkeys have choices. And we do too.

It’s pretty easy to say that all the spider monkeys had to do was to let go of the nut and run back up the tree. What if the nut was a new 3 year contract paying seven figures? Would you still hold onto the nut? Maybe. What if that seven figure contract meant your family could upgrade both cars, employ a nanny, send the kids to elite schools and buy several investment properties? It would be difficult to find a person who wouldn’t want this nut. The trap of course, is that this contract takes up 80% of your personal time including weekends. Is the sacrifice worth it?

The mind is an instrument that can justify just about any decision that fits into a world view and supports inner motivations. Motivations are powerful drivers in making up minds. They can support choices that can help us grow as people and they can also support choices that can hold us back. In the story of the spider monkeys, the monkeys were afraid of missing out on eating the nuts. And it wasn’t the nut, but the fear of losing the nut that held the monkeys captive. The mind latches onto many different devices in order to make a decision and fears can often creep in and be the basis of choices. The most common fears found in everyday life are the fears of poverty, criticism, illness, relationships breaking up, ageing, and even dying (Hill 2003, p262). Holding onto something which may or may not eventuate because of fear, can consume the mind and take the focus away from making choices (and finding choices to make). Being stuck or feeling stuck occurs when a person isn’t aware that they can change a situation by making a different choice. And the same can be said when leading a business.

Beliefs shape behaviours and outcomes

When a Business Leader finds problems in their business they often look outward for the reason why something has gone wrong. The business may be undergoing a seasonal quiet period, the staff may all be new and require training (or retraining), the holiday season may not have attracted the high volumes of customers. As the situation worsens the Business Leader tries to make sense it by perhaps asking a spiral of questions. Should I change my products? Should I change my staff? Are my products priced competitively enough?  Should I sell my business now or wait? These are valid questions. Decisions and choices are constantly being made throughout each day of running a business.

Turning around a business does require business knowledge and nouse, and it also requires a strong mental position from its leader. This type of leader is one who is aware of their personal constraints, who knows that the business is, in part, a reflection of who they are and what they personally stand for. In small to medium sized businesses the Business Leader is the highest point of major decision making so how that person thinks matters. A lot. Finding which nuts (mental beliefs and styles) we are holding onto is almost as equally as important as finding which parts of the business needs improving.

Shifting mental positions takes courage, and the ability to see that leaders can be a source of constraint is an invaluable step toward driving the business into the future. Thinking differently about a business could mean the difference between a five figure profit margin or six figure profit margin.

In the The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the author aptly explains that “...all things are created twice. There’s the mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation...” (Covey 1989, p99). When a person mentally visualises an idea, they have already created it...once. All that needs to happen now is to create it a second time, in the physical world. So before a viable idea is conceived, ensure the platform it’s being developed on is a sound one.

Foraging for nuts

There are many techniques to use to find a Leader’s personal “blinkers” or “blind spots” of perception. It may be personal style, understanding a business’ limitations or other factors which stem from a behaviour within the business.

Below is an example of a set of the questions to use for identifying a personal style or behaviour that may be holding a business back (Flippen 2007, pp 48-49):

  • Is it hard for you to admit fault?
  • Do you wish you were more confident?
  • Do you ever struggle with saying no?
  • Do you have high expectations of yourself and others?
  • Has anyone said you were hard to read?
  • Do you struggle to motivate yourself?
  • Is being in control important to you?
  • Does change and uncertainty make you nervous?
  • In disagreements, do you tend to get the last word in?
  • Do you thrive on spontaneity?


For every positive behaviour or belief, like a thriving on spontaneity, there is an opposite effect as well. Being spontaneous may work against a business if the Business Leader is constantly changing direction, not completing projects in pursuit of other more interesting projects, and struggling to create a consistent clear position in the market.

Other nuts or beliefs that we hold include looking for ideal behaviours in people. For some leaders it may be hard to realise that there is no ideal behaviour in business, only degrees of behaviour (Goldsmith 2007, p191). People can only ‘better’ themselves, they will never be perfect. And there is always something or someone better out there anyway. It’s the want of improvement that develops people, rather than a long held belief that people must be perfect before they are accepted. Leadership requires letting go of judgements because “if you manage your people the way you’d want to be managed, you’re forgetting one thing: You’re not managing you.” (Goldsmith 2007, pp 205 - 209).

Taking stock of the areas that are holding back a business could also involve accepting the business’ limitations. The business may be booming with orders left, right, and centre. The tipping point however may be that if another, say, 200 orders were received, the staff, back end operations team and suppliers, would all be completely overwhelmed. The nut in this situation is receiving more orders, and when that nut has been released, the additional orders can be placed on back-order leaving the remaining orders to completed. Although big challenges are great they  can only be fulfilled when there is a loyal team and a stream of repeat customers to come back to the next day.

The moral of the story

The reason why successful Business Leaders become introspective is because they want to find out how they personally affect the business. Once they understand this, they can seek direction from experts and gain the support they need to achieve their next goal (Blanchard 2005, p 112).

Fables like the spider monkey story illustrates how choices that can free us are right in front of us, but they are hard to comprehend when we are tightly holding onto something that isn’t serving us. Letting go of unproductive beliefs, thoughts, styles, behaviours and circumstances creates a new world of possibilities to bring to our business and to our lives.

Online references


Blanchard, K., Fowler S., and Hawkins L. (2005) Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager. Harper Collins. Hammersmith, London. United Kingdom.

Covey S. R. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The Business Library, Melbourne Australia.

Flippen F. (2007) The Flip Side: Break Free From The Behaviours That Hold You BackSpringboard Press. New York, America

Goldsmith M. (2007) What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Hyperion. New York, America. (p 216)

Hill, N. (2003) Think And Grow Rich. Random House. London. United Kingdom.

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