Management Lessons from Ali Baba & Forty Thieves

Ali Baba and 40 Thieves is amongst most told stories from the Arabian world and I am sure most of you must have listened to this amazing story.  I came across this amazing story recently while preparing for my upcoming program and immediately some thoughts crossed my mind. In this post I’ll share the Management Lessons from Ali Baba & Forty Thieves.

Here is the story of Ali Baba & Forty Thieves*

Ali Baba and his elder brother Qasim are the sons of a merchant. After their father’s death, the greedy Qasim marries a wealthy woman and becomes well-to-do, building on their father’s business. Ali Baba marries a poor woman and settles into the trade of a woodcutter.

One day, Ali Baba is at work collecting and cutting firewood in the forest, and he happens to overhear a group of 40 thieves visiting their treasure store. The treasure is in a cave, the mouth of which is sealed by magic. It opens on the words “open sesame” and seals itself on the words “close sesame”. When the thieves are gone, Ali Baba enters the cave himself and discreetly takes a single bag of gold coins home.

Ali Baba and his wife borrow his sister-in-law’s scales to weigh their new wealth. Unbeknownst to them, Qasim’s wife puts a blob of wax in the scales to find out what Ali Baba is using them for, as she is curious to know what kind of grain her impoverished brother-in-law needs to measure. To her shock, she finds a gold coin sticking to the scales and tells her husband. Under pressure from his brother, Ali Baba is forced to reveal the secret of the cave. Qasim goes to the cave, taking a donkey with him to take as much treasure as possible. He enters the cave with the magic words. But in his greed and excitement over the treasure, he forgets the words to get out again. The thieves find him there and kill him. When his brother does not come back, Ali Baba goes to the cave to look for him, and finds the body quartered and with each piece displayed just inside the cave’s entrance, as a warning to anyone else who might try to enter.

Ali Baba brings the body home where he entrusts Morgiana, a clever slave-girl from Qasim’s household, with the task of making others believe that Qasim has died a natural death. First, Morgiana purchases medicines from an apothecary, telling him that Qasim is gravely ill. Then, she finds an old tailor known as Baba Mustafa whom she pays, blindfolds, and leads to Qasim’s house. There, overnight, the tailor stitches the pieces of Qasim’s body back together so that no one will be suspicious. Ali Baba and his family are able to give Qasim a proper burial without anyone’s asking awkward questions.

The thieves, finding the body gone, realize that yet another person must know their secret, and they set out to track him down. One of the thieves goes down to the town and comes across Baba Mustafa, who mentions that he has just sewn a dead man’s body back together. Realizing the dead man must have been the thieves’ victim, the thief asks Baba Mustafa to lead the way to the house where the deed was performed. The tailor is blindfolded again, and in this state he is able to retrace his steps and find the house. The thief marks the door with a symbol so the other thieves can come back that night and kill everyone in the house. However, the thief has been seen by Morgiana who, loyal to her master, foils the thief’s plan by marking all the houses in the neighborhood similarly. When the 40 thieves return that night, they cannot identify the correct house, and their leader kills the unsuccessful thief in a furious rage. The next day, another thief revisits Baba Mustafa and tries again. Only this time, a chunk is chipped out of the stone step at Ali Baba’s front door. Again, Morgiana foils the plan by making similar chips in all the other doorsteps, and the second thief is killed for his failure as well. At last, the leader of the thieves goes and looks himself. This time, he memorizes every detail he can of the exterior of Ali Baba’s house.

The leader of the federation pretends to be an oil merchant in need of Ali Baba’s hospitality, bringing with him mules loaded with 38 oil jars, one filled with oil, the other 37 hiding the other remaining thieves. Once Ali Baba is asleep, the thieves plan to kill him. Again, Morgiana discovers and foils the plan, killing the 37 thieves in their oil jars by pouring boiling oil on them. When their leader comes to rouse his men, he discovers they are all dead and escapes. The next morning, Morgiana tells Ali Baba about the thieves in the jars. They bury them, and Ali Baba shows his gratitude by giving Morgiana her freedom.

To exact revenge after some time, the leader of the thieves establishes himself as a merchant, befriends Ali Baba’s son (who is now in charge of the late Qasim’s business), and is invited to dinner at Ali Baba’s house. However, the thief is recognized by Morgiana, who performs a sword dance with a dagger for the diners and plunges it into the thief’s heart, when he is off his guard. Ali Baba is at first angry with Morgiana, but when he finds out the thief wanted to kill him, he is extremely grateful and rewards Morgiana by marrying her to his son. Ali Baba is then left as the only one knowing the secret of the treasure in the cave and how to access it.

This is how this story ends for everyone happily for everyone except forty thieves. The forty thieves were rich and powerful but still they not only lost all their fortunes but also their lives. Ali Baba was neither more powerful nor smart still he managed to get everything by making best use of the resources which were available to him.

Following are the Management Lessons from Ali Baba & Forty Thieves story:

1. Protect Your Trade Secrets:

In the story first the thieves and then Ali Baba was not able to keep their secret and once it was known to others it created havoc for both of them. Had they protected their secrets it would have saved them from all the trouble. A number of organizations owe their success to their trade secrets. It takes a lot of time and resources to create, improve, perfect and maintain a product or a service. What if your competition gets to know your trade secrets? Who can forget the success of Coca Cola? Coca Cola syrup formula is amongst most valuable trade secrets in the world. Coca Cola syrup formula is not protected by any patent and it’s only its names “Coca Cola” and “Coke” are registered as a trademark. We live in an era where there’s so much of competition and a number of people/organizations try to obtain secrets of other people/ organizations and make quick bucks. You should be very careful while providing any kind of information to others and if you have to provide such information you must get appropriate confidentiality agreement signed from the recipient so as to avoid any future misuse.

2. Bright Be Brighter:

Though Ali Baba was a kind hearted man but he was not an intelligent person but he was wise enough to delegate work to intelligent people. When Ali Baba brought back home the dead body of Qasim, he trusted Morgiana, a clever slave girl, with the task of making others believe that Qasim has died a natural death. Morgiana not only completed the task but also kept a watchful eye on the people visiting their locality. If you have to delegate work you should delegate work depending upon the capabilities of the people. When people are entrusted and given responsibility they perform and excel.

3. Reward the Performers:

Ali Baba freed Morgiana from slavery and even he got her married to his son. If you are looking to improve your employee retention and longevity then you must recognize and reward top performers and make them part of the decision making process. This makes feel them valued. Sometimes simply saying ‘Job well done’ or just a pat on the back goes a long way.

4. Trust, the Foundation of All Relationships:

Morgiana was an intelligent girl and Ali Baba trusted her and didn’t hide death of Qasim. Morgiana took responsibility and successfully steered the family of her master out of trouble. Can you imagine an organization where there is no trust and where people are suspicious of one another? Can such organization work properly? Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Trust helps to communicate better and freely. It increases honesty, transparency and openness. Learn how you can build trust between you and your team members that will help your organization a better place to be in.

5. Don’t Be Greedy:

Qasim went in the cave with 10 donkeys to bring as much of gold as he can. But his brain was so occupied with greed that he forgot the secret words to come out of the cave and was ultimately caught and killed by the thieves. In Bhagavad Gita Shri Krishna says, “Hell has three gates; Lust, Anger, and Greed.” Being greedy works against you. One should be rational and know where to end. In Africa the hunters trap monkeys by keeping bananas in a trap made up of wooden bars. Monkey slides his hand in through the bars and grabs the banana and that is when the hunters emerge and kill the monkey because his greed doesn’t let him open his palm, leave the banana and run to safety.

6. Train Your Team Members:

In the story when first thief marked a sign on Ali Baba’s house and Morgiana marked similar signs on other walls of Ali Baba’s neighbors the head thief killed lesser thief and sent the second thief who chipped a chunk out of the stone step and Morgiana made similar chips on all their neighbors and out of rage head thief killed the 2nd thief also. And then head thief himself had to come and find the exact place. Out of 40 thieves 2 were killed due to non training resulting in depleted strength of the thieves. “If you think training is expensive, try ignorance.” And the ignorance is defined as repeating the same behavior, over and over, and expecting different results. Hiring a perfect employee is a myth. Hire those who are coachable and are willing to learn. Once you have hired your team members train them and help them develop ownership. Here are some tips to develop ownership amongt your team members.

7. Staying Ahead of the Competition:

Morgiana was keeping an eye on every move of 40 thieves and firstly by marking similar signs thieves had marked on their house and then killing them, one by one, by pouring boiling oil in the pots they were hiding and finally killing the head thief with a dagger. There’s so much of competition and if you don’t realize changing scenarios and adapt to latest trends you could be out of business even before you realize it. ‘Noika’ and ‘Kodak’ were leaders in their respective segments but both were eliminated from the business as they didn’t change themselves as per the market trends. Whereas with its innovative new products ‘Apple’ has been on the forefront of innovation and is world’s most valued company today.

8. Plan Well and Execute to the Perfection:

Ali Baba knew that the moment thieves will come back and not find Qasim’s body, they will start looking for it in their city. As, under normal circumstances, there can’t be a number of deaths in a city it will be easier for the thieves to identify Ali Baba and his family and they will try and kill them. Ali Baba asked Morgiana to ensure that Qasim’s death look natural and there’s no further trouble for them in future. Morgiana knew what she needs to accomplish and she had a clearly defined plan and set of goals and all she need was to execute it properly which she did successfully. You too need to create a detailed plan and divide it into small tasks and assign responsibility of each task to different team members and keep a watch on the execution.

9. Work on Your Weaknesses:

When Ali Baba and company came to know about the tailor master, Baba Mustufa, and yet they didn’t take any step to cover the loophole which could have proven very costly to them. They were saved only because of Morgiana’s vigil. It’s important to be watchful and to keep an eye on your weak areas. You need to know how others are progressing and where all you are lacking to your competition. You need to act wise and stay sharp with your actions, weaknesses and even threats in business.

10. Follow the Compliance:

Leader of the thieves brought 38 oil jars with only one full with oil and rest with thieves. Ali Baba checked only the first jar and didn’t bother checking other jars assuming they too contain oil. Had Morgiana not listened to the thieves’ voice and taken preventive measure it could have proved costly to Ali Baba and his family. When you make your processes, try and cover all the loopholes and ensure it is followed religiously. Review your process and compliance periodically and audit to check unforeseen loopholes and make processes to cover the loopholes.

11. Prioritize Your Work:

Ali Baba’s wanted to know how much gold he has so he borrowed the scale from his sister-in-law. Hiding the gold and keeping it a secret was more important than counting or knowing the quantity or value of the gold. When you start your day make your to do list and prioritize the tasks depending upon their importance. Working on right tasks will lead you to a successful use of your time and save a lot of efforts.

12. Never Let Your Emotions Overpower Your Intelligence:

Ali Baba didn’t enter the cave just after the thieves were gone. He waited till the time he was not sure that the thieves are gone. Whereas Qasim let his greed overpower his intelligence and forgot the secret words. All of believe that we are always logical and forget that we also have emotional tendencies which are triggered as per the situation and these tendencies erode our decision making capabilities. While making a decision think of all the possibilities logically and if you don’t have an immediate solution it’s always better to wait and think of more possibilities than to make a hasty decision and regret later.

13. Haste Makes Waste:

Thieves killed Qasim immediately after spotting him in the cave. Had thieves interrogated Qasim before killing him they could have learnt the entire story and could have taken enough preventive measures to avoid such eventuality in future. As they say you can either have it fast or have it good. A new research found that the brain switches into a different mode when it’s forces to act quickly, essentially trading off accuracy for speed. Being hasty is not good in any way. A lot of times, we end up taking hasty decisions leading to disastrous results- that could be financial, emotional and majority of them- impractical. As a professional we need to practice calm and consistency together. The ability to understand the Pros & Cons before being reactive is significant for someone who is in any responsible and answerable position.

14. Succession Planning:

When Ali Baba grew old, he took his son to the caves and told him the secret, which they handed down to their descendants; and using their good fortune with moderation and lived in great honor and splendor. All organizations lose good employees for various reasons. Losing good employees can leave a large gap in any organization and finding the replacements is could be challenging, expensive and time consuming. Organizations can avoid any such situation by implementing an effective succession plan. Succession planning helps in building the second line of leaders which in turn ensure long term health, growth and stability of the organization.

15. Being at Right Place at Right Time:

Ali Baba was at right place at right time to learn thieves’ secret. Being in right place at the right time is a lesson about persistence. A relentless pursuit of your goals is the only way to achieve success. You may feel sad and sometimes you may blame your luck but if you believe yourself and in your dreams and keep coming back to the right place, doing the things success demands, I am sure you are going to be in the right place and achieve success.


 *Story Credit: Wikipedia

** Picture Credit: Google