By Frank J. Rich
In the popular ’40s song, “Swinging on a Star,” the lyrics offer hope for those given to performance improvement. Since this column is devoted to the principles of this practice, the song naturally inclines toward a model of it as revealed in both animals and people. As we begin a new year, we do well to consider just how we will achieve the goals now forming in our minds.
Would you like to swing on a star,
Carry moonbeams home in a jar,
And be better off than you are,
Or would you rather be a mule?
A mule is an animal with long funny ears.
He kicks up at anything he hears.
His back is brawny and his brain is weak.
He’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.
And by the way, if you hate to go to school,
You may grow up to be a mule.
… Or would you rather be a pig?
A pig is an animal with dirt on his face,
His shoes are a terrible disgrace.
He ain’t got no manners when he eats his food.
He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude.
But if you don’t care a feather or a fig,
You may grow up to be a pig.
… Or would you rather be a fish?
A fish won’t do anything but swim in a brook,
He can’t write his name or read a book,
And to fool the people is his only thought.
Though he’s slippery, he still gets caught.
But then if that sort of life is what you wish,
You may grow up to be a fish.
And all the monkeys aren’t in a zoo.
Every day you meet quite a few.
So you see it’s all up to you.
You can be better than you are.
You could be swinging on a star.
[Lyrics by Johnny Burke © Music Sales Group & Bourne Co.]
A few of us may find the likeness rude, or just too close for comfort. However fun to find our guise in an animal’s behavior, the bearing in them is revealing. Organizations are formed of people who apply their skills and approaches to the work, purpose, ideas, and ideals of the organization. Some call this a “signature experience.”
When an organization has one, it is usually better prepared to achieve its stated goals – the thing most are unable to accomplish.
Our motivation may be rooted in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, then materialize in ways that qualify us for the work we do and the lives we lead. In the process, we first consider the needs of others, asking of ourselves how to help grow another’s contribution while sensitive to his needs. Such needs might take the form of recognition, leadership involvement, soldiers’ work, continued growth, and so on. When we don’t find the opportunity to be ourselves, we perish, at least in some form. We exhibit fear, anxiety, rejection, disapproval, embarrassment, defensiveness, or boredom, to name a few. Animals, too, respond in similar ways.
Despite its imposing form – armor plated and battle ready – the armadillo is an enigma with precocial ways. Generous by nature, they share their burrows (often 25 feet long with several emergency exits) with most any creature that also prefers burrows as habitats. It is common to find skunks, rats, opossums, rabbits, and snakes all living under the same roof, and often sharing food stores. In addition to their unique susceptibility to leprosy bacillus, heretofore only available from infected humans (science has not been able to grow a culture of it), the immature armadillo is adorable.
The zebra, which has successfully resisted domestication, is a gifted defensemen. In captivity with other animals, it will often attack the very same species they cohabitate with in the wild. Stallions, in particular, are known to break the jaw of an attacking lion with a deft kick, and mothers and foals are so bonded (for three years) that attacks from wild dogs and others in the night elicit childlike screaming from the foals which quickly gathers mares in a knot around them. One story has a mare and her foals galloping off in a tight formation, skillfully repelling the attacking dogs. In daylight Zebras are common among hyenas, giraffes, and lions.
When we study the characteristic behavior of animals we can easily see the human condition. Sometimes it’s a poor reflection; but, perhaps, meant to model the benefit in the likeness to them. As you consider the question that follows, you may want to review the animal behavior above. Which are you: mule, pig, fish, monkey, armadillo, or zebra? Choose wisely.