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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can't Stomach The Rebellion

Any crisis produces the possibility that anxiety and fear may collaborate to cause people to do or say things that they would not ordinarily do or say. We may be transformed by the drama or trauma of a crisis. The current economic crisis is no exception. Diminishing resources often prompt people to look at issues differently. Elements of an organization threatened by fiscal problems can either forge a unified response to the common threat or they can collapse or even turn against one another. Schools are certainly liable to fall prey to this potential hazard. When the budget cuts appear inevitable, it's not uncommon for one unit of the organization - a grade, a building, a department, a bargaining unit... to turn against another unit to avoid suffering cuts. This sort of organizational cannibalism is not sustainable. In-fighting can lead to the system restructuring itself by survival tactics espoused by the loudest or most forceful group. When triumph over another unit becomes the objective, the whole system can lose sight of its true objectives and veer off course from their stated direction. In the long term, creativity and cooperation, combined with fidelity to the mission and a focus on the future, will more likely secure success despite the economy.

Here's a parable that offers a glimpse at the chaos and confusion that occurs when an organization turns against itself. I cannot recall where I heard this or where I may have collected it, but its been stored in my reservoir of quotes and stories related to educational leadership.

Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach.

“You good-for-nothing slacker!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile, you just sit there hogging all the food.”

“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”

“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all that food you love comes from? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”

“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think its easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”

And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.

“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”

Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”

So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet.

Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.

The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”

Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.

Finally, the man heard a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.

“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”

“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and mouth.”

“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up from his dream. To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better.

“Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”

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