Travelling North

Elephants on Roller Skates | Book Extract

Elephants on Roller Skates

These are two sections from the book Elephants on Roller Skates – comprising the Introduction and the final chapter.

Hope this ‘taste’ tempts you to buy the book!!


In 1908, a young academic at the University of Cambridge published a short guide for the academic politician, a satire that, as is sometimes the case, contains more truth than you might have expected. Francis Cornford had observed his learned colleagues at work, and noted that there were some key strategies they used, especially to stop any changes taking place in their comfortable ivory tower. Two of his favourites were the Principle of the Wedge and the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent.   The Principle of the Wedge was that “you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act more justly in the future” – something to which no wise person would want to make a commitment!  Similarly, the Principle of Dangerous Precedent is that “you should not do now an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case”.  In other words, every thing one does that has not been done before is either wrong, or if it is right sets a dangerous precedent, so clearly it is better to do nothing for the first time!  What wonderful advice, to which we might add that both these principles are today summarised in terms of what is often called the Slippery Slope, which is that once one does something new, there is no way to stop that action leading to further actions, the process inevitably snowballing with consequences too horrible to consider!

I thought of the slippery slope some time ago while walking around the City of Melbourne.  There I saw an arresting sign:  a picture of a rhinoceros on a skateboard. The sign was there to remind pedestrians to watch out for trams, especially in the pedestrian precincts.  Under the picture, the sign commented that anyone seeing a rhinoceros approaching on a skateboard would get out of the way!  Well, a tram weighs as much as 30 rhinoceroses – so be careful!!

To my mind that sign also suggested another image, that of an elephant on roller skates.  I saw this, too, as a warning.  For a long time, we have used the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’, to represent a big and critical issue of which everyone is aware and knows is affecting what is being done, but which no one is willing to articulate and discuss.  Common sense tells us that we need to discuss the elephant in the room.  Reveal this big but unspoken topic, and then we will be able to make progress on the issues that are facing us without being blocked by what is being left unsaid.

However, having identified an issue of this kind, there are many times when discussion continues without our noticing the elephant is no longer in the room.  It has escaped, on roller skates, and is hurtling along down a slippery slope – dangerous and almost unstoppable – and we are dragged along, unable to let go!!  An elephant on roller skates is an idea, a belief, or a philosophy, that we have stopped thinking about in a clear way.  We have acknowledged the previously unspoken issue, and then believed it has been resolved.  We have recognised there was an elephant in the room, but then allowed it to slip out of our minds so that, as a result, it is free to run away from us.  The issue is still affecting us, not because we haven’t acknowledged it, but because we have stopped paying attention to it.  Without thinking further about the issue, we fail to realise that it is still shaping or constraining the way we live, pulling us in a particular direction.  We do not seem to notice what is happening.

This book is about a number of elephants on roller skates.  They are ideas that have surreptitiously got out of control, and at the same time slipped out of focus.  We no longer see them clearly – we hardly see them at all – but they are still racing along, carrying us with them, often leaving a trail of chaos and destruction.  It is not enough merely to recognise and admit that there is an elephant in the room, as if naming an issue were sufficient.  Failing to pay attention, in time we will find we have to rein in an escaped elephant if we are to save ourselves from being taken to a conclusion we neither intended nor would have chosen.

In the chapters that follow, I have identified some of these fuzzy runaway ideas.  They concern a range of areas of our lives.  Some have to do with the nature of society, embracing such matters as the operations of the marketplace, or the ideology of libertarians.  Some are more individual, covering such topics as keeping in touchwith others, or telling the truth.  In each case the topics I have explored come down to such very specific concepts as justice, truthfulness, respect, loyalty, liberty, and even habits.  If some of these issues seem more important than others, well, all I can say is that elephants come in various sizes, from the very big down to quite small ones – but they all can drag us in unanticipated directions.

In writing about these ideas, I often touch on the work of philosophers:  after all, their task is to explore questions about such matters as how we live together, what makes a good society, and so on.  However, I am not a philosopher, so I write as ‘a man on the street’.  In referring to various philosophical analyses, I touch on works that I find hard to understand (and each time I reread them I realise there is so much more there than I had understood the first time around).  If nothing else, I hope that my comments and references encourage you to read more:  there is a rich body of philosophical debate for you to explore, and I am simply providing some sign posts for you to follow.

While this book addresses a number of topics that I believe may be running away from us, I do not claim it to be comprehensive, for I suspect there are a lot of fast moving elephants out there.  Rather my purpose is to encourage you think, and join me in the task of spotting elephants on roller skates, and exploring ways to bring them back under control.  At the end of the book I have written about some of the ways we can maintain our focus as ‘elephant spotters’.  I hope you will find suggestions that help you set about curtailing the stampede.

  1. It ain’t necessarily soWe began the last chapter with a reference to the Cole Porter 1934 musical Anything Goes.  A year later there was a rather more controversial premiere, that of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess.  First in Boston, and then later at Carnegie Hall in New York that year, many in the audience found it hard to accept a “folk music opera” with a classically trained and entirely African-American cast.  Perhaps Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to the song “It ain’t necessarily so” were unfortunately prophetic:  it took 41 years for Porgy and Bess to be accepted as an opera, and in the intervening period it was performed in a shortened musical theatre version, with a reduced cast and orchestra, and the recitatives turned into spoken dialogue.

In the opera, Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer, sings about his doubts as to the truthfulness of statements in The Bible, with the opening verse:

It ain’t necessarily so

It ain’t necessarily so

The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble

To read in de Bible,

It ain’t necessarily so.

That could be song for anyone who wants to remain alert and questioning about the world around him or her, a song for elephant spotters!  Well, with apologies to Ira Gershwin, I suppose you would have to change the last three lines to:

The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble

To take as reli’ble,

It ain’t necessarily so!

It is hard to think of a more apt warning for the 21st Century.  On the one hand, we are likely to accept without question the effectiveness of the free and open market, or the necessity to tell the truth.  At the same time, we are bombarded with advice, every day of our lives, on what to wear, how to manage our finances, look after our health, where to go for our holidays, and even how to make sense of gun massacres or why China will (or will not) becomes the world’s largest economic power in 20 years time.

It is certainly an apt warning for me.  As I look back over the chapters of this book, I see a degree of anxiety, negativity even, in the things I write.  Looking at “doing the right thing” I am concerned about the consequences of moral absolutes.  When I explore the importance of liberty, I am happy to explain all sorts of constraints on that freedom.  I am certainly concerned that those of us who live in a world of plenty always seem to want more.   Moreover, when it comes to discussing change I appear preoccupied with describing all the reasons we are unlikely to change.  Enough already!

All this came home to me very clearly when discussing the operations of the free market with some students.  While I was thinking about the dangers of people being left behind and the extent to which the market embodied “the survival of the fittest”, I was taken up short by one student who commented: “Just look at how the operations of the market have transformed the lives of people over the past 100 years”.  I was about to comment on the poor in the United States, and then go on to the lot of rural Indians or those living on the margin in other developing and underdeveloped nations, when I paused to think.  The quality of life for many, probably most, people has been transformed in the last 100 years.  It has been greatly enhanced just in the last 30 years.  While there are still people who are living on the edge and barely getting enough food to eat, the quality and availability of food is vastly better than it was 30 years ago.

That thought led to another, which was about the impact of science.  There are many genetically modified crops that have increased yields and quality, even though there are others where the genetic manipulation has proved less successful.  On balance and right now we are benefitting enormously from the positive side of these interventions.  Even where there are problems, scientists are working hard to overcome them, backed by governments and industries keen to exploit new and better technologies.  Shareholders may reap the benefits of companies’ growth, but we will all reap the benefits of better and safer foods.  My student was doing an excellent job in making sure that I kept on thinking!

“It ain’t necessarily so” is a warning against falling into an easy acceptance of ideologies, principles and everyday advice.  It is a reminder that we should always be alert to being drawn into accepting a viewpoint without remembering that viewpoints can run away from us.  Unquestioned, they slip into the background, influencing our ideas and our behaviour.

In the previous chapters we have been talking about how an elephant can get launched away from you.  This chapter is not about how it can happen, but what you can do when it does happen.  How can you get the elephant back, off the roller skates, and gradually shape-shift it into something more manageable?

In one sense, the answer to this question is easy – it is about thinking and reflection.  Elephants start pulling us along because we are not taking time out to think about what is going on, reflecting on what is happening, and taking action to reel in the elephants that are affecting our lives.  This should be a short chapter – all you have to do is remember to take time out to learn, to think and to reflect, and all will be well.  So, is it that easy?

It wasn’t for me.  I was nearly 40 years old when I realised that I had just about lost the ability to think and to reflect.  I was sitting in the evening light in a log cabin, just close to the Chesapeake Bay, in the middle of the Wye Woods.  This is the winter home of The Aspen Institute, when winter in Aspen means the ski season, and any space for seminars and deep discussion has just about disappeared under a carpet of snow, skis and après-ski parties.  I was reading, concentrating on a thick folder of readings, having just spent some hours around a table with a group of fellow participants in a seminar.  We had spent some time – most of that day – reading and debating a section of Plato’s Republic, a passage that is often called ‘The city of pigs’.

I had read the piece before we went in the seminar room:  well, I am using the word ‘read’ rather casually.  The first thing that happened was that the moderator asked one of us to read out one early part of the extract.  I can still remember to this day how that simple act made me look so much more carefully at the paragraph that had been chosen.  Then the moderator turned to me and asked me what the passage meant.  I bumbled my way through a half-decent summary of the text.  Very kindly, he asked me more questions about the extract, and in so doing revealed some of the nuances and subtleties of this seemingly simple passage.  Of course, I had hardly grasped it at all.  I was used to superficial reading, reading every word, getting the gist of what was meant, picking out some important ‘bits’, and then moving on.

That evening I began to read more carefully and think about the passages that had been selected for us.  I still have my folder of readings from that seminar, heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated.  It was an intense, revealing and rewarding fortnight.  I had not realised that Plato’s stories, Machiavelli’s observations, or Tawney’s strictures had so much depth in them. There was a world beyond superficial “understanding”, a world of thinking and reflection that I had left behind soon after I had finished my university education.  Whatever remnants of truly critical thinking there had been were quickly being dissipated in dealing with the demands of business and later in running an organisation:  being busy had pushed all that aside.

I have never looked back from that moment.  I began to run moderated discussion groups based on the same approach.  I started up a group of older people, meeting just once a month, where we took apart readings – some “ancient” and, in time, some more contemporary.  I developed a university course, part of an MBA program, called Great Thinkers, where we sat around a table and used the same approach, reading and exploring the ideas of great writers.  In various groups I have drawn on the works of people from 2,500 years ago – Plato, Aristotle, Confucius and Lao Tzu – right through to such contemporary writers as Peter Singer and Francis Fukuyama.

Almost without fail, every time I have sat down at the table to read extracts from great writers and thinkers with a group of other people, we have all learnt something new, and quite often something important.  More to the point, despite my familiarity with the texts we discuss, I have almost always gained from hearing the unanticipated perspective of another participant, developed insights that I had never considered before.  If I am a better person now, and possibly a better teacher, it all started with that session in the Wye Woods.  Without that, all the extraordinary education I received as an undergraduate would have certainly withered away, wasted and unused.

What was it I learnt?  I had (re-)learned to think and reflect.  They are far from easy things to do.  I can sit here today, enjoying the solitude and far from day-to-day demands in the Tuscan hills, and I can think and reflect – it is an ideal environment, quiet, leisurely, peaceful.  I am lucky in where I am living in the United States, as it has the same attributes.  However, when I am there I have friends who call round or invite my wife and me to dinner; I have a course to plan and teach for the local university; I have projects I am working on with clients in a variety of companies; and, much to my enjoyment, I have a camera and birds in the garden I want to photograph.  My wife and I have many other things we want to do, children and grandchildren to keep in touch with, and all the busy life of semi-retirement.  I can think and reflect at home, but I have to work hard to create the space to do it.

If all this is difficult for me, how much harder is it when you are working full time, when your children are growing up, when there are holidays to plan, places to go, films to see, and all the other activities that fill up our daily lives.  Thinking and reflecting can seem like luxuries, something to indulge in occasionally, perhaps when you and your partner have a little time to talk together and explore what has been happening.  Without the “luxury” of thinking and reflection, we are likely to be pulled hither and thither by elephants on roller skates – ideas, concerns and issues that tug at our activities and plans, largely unseen.  Unseen because we don’t have the time to stand back and ask ourselves – ‘what are we doing?”  Thinking and reflecting aren’t luxuries, but necessities!

The theme of this chapter is creating space to think and reflect, a topic we might describe as ‘letting go and losing control’!  It sounds like a recipe for disaster, a recipe for and approach to living in a world where it sounds like you have given up.  It is actually a path to greater understanding and an enhanced ability to grow and take charge of your life.

When I think of letting go, I think about priorities.  I went through a major phase of letting go about twenty years ago.  When I talk about it now, I present it as if it was a well-considered set of decisions:  in reality, I think it was more adventitious and intuitive.  What happened was that I realised I did not have all the time I needed to do my job well in running an organisation, to spend time with my wife (I had recently remarried), and to pay attention to the things I cared about.  So, I got rid of the only television we had, abandoned my aspiration to be a novelist, set aside my camera, and started to read and think a great deal more selectively.

I made some mistakes, and some were big ones.  My older children will tell you that I spent even less time with them than ever before (my track record as a parent leaves a lot to be desired, and it was only the unexpected birth of a daughter at about this time that kept me in touch with my children:  my youngest daughter wanted to know her siblings!).  I probably invested less time in my marriage than I should have done:  my wife and I were happy, but I wonder if that was just happy enough?  In fact, I think you could say I let go of too much of the emotional side of my life (and it is only now, married again after my wife died a few years ago, that I feel I have all that in a better perspective).

Setting aside my camera was giving away something that I had not even realised.  In doing that I had given a huge priority to the rational, logical side of my life.  I didn’t lose my intuitive sense, but I pushed it into a corner.  I can still remember sitting on an interview panel assessing candidates, and debating the facts we had gleaned.  At the time, one candidate stood out on the objective measures, and so I set aside the other concerns I had, less easy to articulate, and argued we should go for the best person who had presented.  Had I listened to what my intuition was telling me, I would have avoided a disaster!  I did learn to listen to myself more carefully as I became a wiser chief executive, but I could have done so earlier and been far more effective.

The camera was important because photography took me into the world of art, not science, the exploration of composition, aesthetic issues and feelings.  By putting it into a cupboard, I had put part of myself there, preferring to lead the controlled and rational life that my school studies in science had supported.  In saying that I let go of too much of the emotional side of my life, I also abandoned the insights and understandings that come from lived experience, rather than rules and measures.  Today, slowly, photography is helping me access and feel comfortable with the person I am, rather than the logical perfectionist I strove to be.

Letting go is about accepting that you cannot do everything, and trying to make decision about those things that you will abandon, or set aside for a while, so that you do have time left to think and reflect about how you are living your life.  If it is important to lead an examined life, then it must be also important to make sure you have time to undertake regular examination!  It is also important to consider carefully what you will let go.  I abandoned my aspirations to be a novelist, and set aside my passion for photography:  they were not good choices, and I could have left room for some of that “right brain” stuff, and spent less time on some of the more task-oriented activities to which I gave priority.

If I am advocating letting go some activities, it is because I see so many people around me who are so busy being busy they are letting their lives slip past them.  A busy life is not a good life, it is simply full.  It is easy to fill up time, it is much harder to identify those things that really are worth giving attention, and make sure you are giving them the time they deserve.  If you let some things go, things that keep you busy without offering you much real value, you will have time to think and reflect.  If you have time to think and reflect, you will be able to reduce the risk of being pulled in one direction or another by an elephant you have ceased to acknowledge.

Many of us are uncomfortable about deciding what to pursue, and what to set aside.  In part this reflects a degree of fear, that in abandoning something we will be regarded as less successful or even be seen as a failure.  This is so clear when you work inside an organisation, and imagine all the expectations that sit around you:  being busy shows commitment and perseverance.  In part the task is also asking that we reexamine ourselves, allocating priority to those elements of our lives that will define who we are.  It is easy to choose to invest most of our time in work because work identifies us (“what do you do?  I am a marketing manager with XYZ corporation.”  No wonder so many people still cling on to the position they held when asked what they do after they have retired!).  That trite old question “Do you work to live, or live to work?” is still worth asking.

A person is not a position, a job is not a way of life.  Work can be fulfilling and enjoyable, but it is unlikely to touch more than part of our capabilities and aspirations:  leave room for some things that matter to you, and give away some things that are less important.  Cabinet making as a hobby is far more fulfilling than endless after-work socialising:  the former offers real opportunity to do more than make things, it creates the space to think; the latter fills up time, and crowds out the opportunity to reflect.

There is another element in letting go, and this has to do with “forgetting”.  I don’t mean forgetting in the sense of forgetfulness, which seems to be an increasing problem as I get older!  In this case, I am referring to the task of setting aside some of the frameworks you have developed in making sense of the world around you, and being willing to explore new ways.  I have sometimes referred to this as being willing to “stand in another person’s shoes”.  When I used to ask my students to do this, I was struck by hard it is for many people to take on an alternative perspective.  To let go or forget a framework is to allow yourself to adopt a new perspective.  One way to do this, which I often recommend to managers, is to become a customer of your own business.  It is often revealing, and sometimes quite shocking, to experience the organisation from the outside:  trying to find out whom to contact, trying to work out how to get the right assistance (it only works, of course, if you do this with people in the company who do not know you!).

Being willing to give some things away is part of what can help us.  In an earlier chapter, I told you about an episode that brought home to me the need to become a somewhat better leader in my organisation – exercising the skills of servant leadership rather than being the clever boss who runs things.  I wonder if you saw a second theme inside that story, which was that by stepping back from trying to be in control things often appear to work rather more effectively!

When I tried to control my organisation, I was a “micro-manager”.  I was overworking, and I was ignoring the skills, intelligence and abilities of my staff.  Once I was willing to give away some control, I enabled others to step forward to deal with their areas of responsibility.  Instead of an organisation run by one person, I had an organisation led by many people – a form of “distributed leadership” if you like.  When I was asked about my approach as a leader, I used to say, “If the saying is that ‘two heads are better than one’, then surely several heads are better than two”.

When I was young, the image drummed into my head by my teachers was that leadership was about control.  Good teachers have a lasting effect, and I still find there are circumstances where it is hard for me to give up control, and allow others to get on and do things!  It is often said there are two types of people, those who are paragons of control and organisation and those who seem to live with a constant muddle all around them.  I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that I am close to being one of those “paragons of control and organisation” (after all, just look at the way I described these two types of people!).

I still like being in control.  My desk is always neat; topics on which I am working are neatly filed and put in order; my surroundings are always tidy.  Before I go away on a trip, everything has been booked, checked, and listed:  little is left to chance (and, as my wife reminds me, little has been left to spontaneous choice).  I am better than I used to be, now channeling my obsessive tidiness into housework where it least has some benefit, and less risk of cutting into my creative time.  Retirement has saved me in the sense I really do have time to do things that are rewarding, so now I write, enjoy photography, and luxuriate in times of solitude and reflection.

Control is a greedy monster, and it can gobble up all your time.  Being willing to lose control over things is a way to release the time we should be devoting to rethinking and reflection.  Indeed, the value of letting go and being willing to step back from always being in control is not about changing those activities themselves, of course, it is about their consequences.  We change the way we live in order to give room to activities that otherwise get crowded out by the business – perhaps I mean the busy-ness – of life.  As I said before, busy does not mean productive, it means ‘full’.  Our lives can be full, but very non-productive.  Nor does productive mean just producing things; you can be doing a lot, but not really thinking about it, acting more like a robot, and less like a human being, being pulled along by unseen elephants on roller skates.  To go back to that quote from Socrates, a truly productive and worthwhile life has to be an examined life.

What is an examined life?  It means a life where you are willing to take time out from the ‘doing’ of things to thinking about things.  It means asking questions about yourself, what you are seeking to achieve with your life.  It means asking questions about your relationships with other people, how you treat them, and what you understand in terms of what they are seeking to do with their lives.  It means being willing to take nothing for granted, and making sure to take time out every so often and re-examine what otherwise will sink into the invisible area of embedded taken-for-granted assumptions, ideologies and beliefs (those things I have been calling elephants on roller skates throughout this book).

If we go back to Heidi and the challenges she faced when she found out about some duplicity in her workplace we can see a clear example of trying to live an examined life.  I was impressed by Heidi, because she really did take some time out to try to work out what was the right thing to do.  She didn’t see herself as a paragon of virtue, nor did she see herself as a passive accessory to what had happened.  She wanted to take action, and saw that choosing the right action to take was far from easy, and that whatever her choice there might be consequences she would prefer to avoid – at least insofar as she could control or influence them.  She had an initial reaction to what she learnt, but was willing to let that go, in order to think more carefully.  She was willing to accept that this was a situation in which she could not control the outcomes.

Both letting go and being willing to give away control are techniques to help create space, space to ensure you examine closely the life you are leading, and explore how you have enhanced the value and the richness of what you do both for yourself and for others.  Rather than allowing yourself the short-term satisfaction of being busy, they are actions that help you ensure you have to time to reflect and do some things really well, and enjoy the longer-lasting satisfactions of seeing outcomes and achievements that are worthwhile.

It is not just a matter of time.  Earlier in this book we looked at the power of ideologies, blinkered perspectives, which can keep running along unquestioned.  There our concern was not so much about immediate actions as with the framework within which actions are planned.  To act morally is usually far from straightforward:  principles abound, they are often contradictory, and the need to be sensitive to circumstances is critical.  As we saw when we looked at one moral viewpoint in particular, that of the importance of individual liberty,  we realised that to advocate liberty and freedom of thought and action (albeit limited by the impact on others) is easy.  To examine our right to liberty and the proper limits that should be put around that right is a very different matter.

Are we able to take on the task of paying attention to some of these issues?  Socrates was very interested in human nature, and the way in which this seems to influence many things we do.  We examined two elements of this, looking at whether or not it is in our nature to always want more, and whether or not we can really change our nature and our approach to life to achieve a greater alignment with the person we want to be in the future.   If it is true that we are constantly looking to understand and do more, so we also saw that the question is not just about what is fundamental to how we behave (questions that we are still trying to address 2,500 years after Socrates), but it is also about how we analyse such issues as “more” and “change”.  As thinking and reflective beings, we can re-consider what we want to do, and understand that these behaviours can be rethought, and pursued quite differently.

The same challenges exist when we turn our focus to questions about how we pay attention to others and how we can live together.  Socrates was concerned with justice, and some of the big questions about how we create a good and decent society.  I have chosen to focus on some rather more domestic issues – what we mean by loyalty, tolerance, and a willingness to accept difference.

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