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The Eagle Who Mistook Itself for a Chicken

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Leadership Lesson of the Sisters of the Holy Cross

How do we model true leadership in these ever-changing, divisive times? With the words and actions of many world leaders called into question—and as we approach elections in the United States and abroad—how can the Sisters of the Holy Cross influence the discourse so that the essence of true leadership is exemplified? In this series, we contemplate the ancient wisdom found in fables and sayings from a variety of countries and cultures, illuminated by reflections from our sisters, that can inform our path forward as we strive to live as servant leaders in the model of Jesus.

by Sisters Rosevania de Oliveira Pimentel and Vanessa Cruz Ferreira, CSC, Brazil 

A fable is told about an eagle who thought it was a chicken. When the eagle was very young, she fell from the safety of her nest. A chicken farmer found the eagle, brought her to the farm and raised her in a chicken coop. The eagle grew up believing she was a chicken. 

A naturalist came to the chicken farm to see if what he had heard about an eagle acting like a chicken was true. The farmer explained to the naturalist that the bird was no longer an eagle. She was now a chicken because she had been trained to be a chicken and she believed that she was a chicken.​

The naturalist knew that the bird was born an eagle and had the heart of an eagle, and nothing could change that. The man lifted the eagle onto the fence surrounding the chicken coop and told her to fly. The eagle glanced down at her home among the chickens in the chicken coop where she was comfortable. She jumped off the fence and continued doing what chickens do.

The naturalist returned the next day and tried again to convince the farmer and the eagle that the eagle was born for something greater. He took the eagle to the rooftop of the farmhouse and told her to fly. The large bird looked at the man, then again down into the chicken coop. She jumped from the man’s arm onto the roof of the farmhouse.

The naturalist asked the farmer to let him try one more time. He would return the next day and prove that the bird was an eagle. The farmer said, “It is a chicken.” The naturalist returned the next morning to the chicken farm and took the eagle and the farmer to the foot of a high mountain. The man held the eagle on his arm and pointed high into the sky. He said, “Eagle, you are an eagle! You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch your wings and fly.”

This time the eagle stared upward into the bright sun, straightened her body and stretched her wings. Her wings moved, slowly at first, then surely and powerfully. With the mighty screech of an eagle, it flew.​

The eagle by nature flies high, has vision and chooses what she wants to eat. However, the chicken is a symbol of that which is limited. It is fearful. It does not fly, and it eats what the other chickens eat.

In the course of our lives, we may meet people who want us to think like a chicken, and many of us still think we are chickens. Throw grains at our feet, and we are content. But even so, we are still eagles. Nothing can change our essence, our identity.

The farmer was fully aware that he had an eagle, but he wanted to turn it into a chicken. He raised it under special conditions so that it would be a chicken and never an eagle. But a true leader is able to recognize another leader.

We all hope to encounter a leader who will recognize our inner strength and help us to fly – so that we may rediscover ourselves and identify no longer as chickens, but as eagles. We all have an eagle that inhabits us, an eagle hidden within us. The social environment cannot determine our essence, no matter what the chicken coop says.

The choice is always ours.