A Peacock in the Land of Penguins
A Fable about Creativity and Courage
By BJ Gallagher, Warren H. Schmidt, Sam Weiss
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Barbara "BJ" Gallagher
All rights reserved.
The Story: A Peacock in the Land of Penguins
There once was a time, in the not so distant past, when penguins ruled many lands in the sea of organizations.
These penguins were not always wise, they were not always popular, but they were always in charge.
Most organizations looked the same:
Top executives and managers wore their distinctive penguin suits, while worker birds of many kinds wore colors and outfits that reflected their work and their lifestyles.
Birds who aspired to move up in their organizations were encouraged to become as penguin-like as possible — to shorten their steps and learn the penguin stride, to wear penguin suits, and follow the example of their leaders.
Employee development departments offered extensive training programs on appropriate penguin-like behavior.
The rules and norms were clear from Day One.
Penguins advised in subtle (and not so subtle) ways:
"This is the way we do things here."
"If you want to be successful, be like us."
Some of the birds who wanted to move up in the pecking order became very good at taking on the penguin look and penguin behaviors.
But even they found that they never quite made it into key positions.
It was assumed by all that penguins were natural leaders — orderly, loyal, and good team players.
Penguins could be trusted to put the organization's interests ahead of personal and family concerns.
Other birds were thought to be more flighty and less dependable.
Of course, this was never stated out loud or in writing.
Because, like every organization, penguins wanted to be seen as fair-minded and ready to promote on the basis of talent, hard work, and contribution.
But everyone really knew —
The penguins had always been in charge, and the penguins would always be in charge.
The elder penguins would take younger penguins under their wings and coach them on how to be successful.
They would invite them to play golf and go jogging.
They would sit together in the executive dining room and talk about sports.
It was clear to everyone who the important penguins were.
It was also clear that the penguins felt most comfortable around each other.
Life was harmonious in the Land of Penguins, as long as everyone played by the penguins' rules.
The other birds in the organization knew how to act to make the penguins feel comfortable and secure.
But there came a time when things began to change in the Land of Penguins ...
Senior penguins would visit other lands, where they encountered interesting birds who impressed them with their management talent, experience, and accomplishments.
"These birds are not penguins," the elders thought, "but perhaps they could become penguins, if we brought them to our land and trained them in our penguin ways."
"Surely these impressive and unusual birds could adapt to life in the Land of Penguins, and the talent they bring would make us even more successful."
"Our climate is different — chilly and cold. And our terrain is unique — icy and barren.
"But we have thrived there and so perhaps will these new birds.
"If they are as smart as we think they are, they can adjust to our weather and our ways."
And this was how Perry the Peacock came to live in the Land of Penguins ...
Now Perry was clearly not a penguin.
In fact, he was the antithesis of penguinity —
Perry was a peacock — a bright, colorful, and noisy bird.
Perry was a very talented peacock, who had accomplished some very impressive things in his own land.
He could write well and was excellent at managing his budgets. He was creative and imaginative, and at the same time, practical and sensible.
He had many friends and admirers in his own land, and was very popular and well-liked.
Senior managers in the Land of Penguins were intrigued when they met Perry the Peacock.
They knew that he was different — but they were impressed with what he had achieved in his career, and they were fascinated with the possibilities that he represented.
They felt that Perry had real Penguin Potential.
Perry, in turn, was attracted to the penguins because of the great things he had heard and read about their land — the promise of status, and wealth, and a sense of belonging to a great and powerful enterprise.
It was a rich land — and all the birds were paid extremely well.
"My future will be brighter," he thought, "in this new land."
And so the penguins and the peacock agreed.
He would join them, and together they would achieve great things.
At first everyone was delighted.
The penguins were pleased and impressed with their new recruit.
He stood out from the crowd in the way he sparkled and displayed flashes of color every now and then.
And Perry was pleased, too, with the novelty and the newness.
He was impressed by the penguins — they looked so important in their black and white suits, especially when they gathered together for meetings and company events.
Their formality and manners were so different from anything he had ever seen or experienced before.
Now the peacock was careful in the beginning not to display too much of his colorful nature.
You see, some friends in his own land had warned Perry about penguins —
They had cautioned him about the rules and the style with which the penguins governed their land.
So he kept his feathers folded up much of the time, and would only occasionally flash them open to dazzle the penguins with the full range of his talent and color.
He wanted to be taken seriously and he wanted to be successful.
So he subdued his own peacock nature for a while, until he could be sure that the penguins had accepted him completely.
He was confident that when he produced good results for them, they would embrace him fully in all his peacock glory — and he could relax and just be himself.
You see, things were very different in the land where he had grown up — in the Land of Learning.
In the Land of Learning there were Lots of different kinds of birds.
There were wise birds (owls), and powerful birds (eagles), and hunting birds (hawks), improbable birds (ostriches), elegant birds (swans), and awkward birds (gooney birds).
It was crowded and noisy, with a buzz of activity and the rough and tumble of competition.
Birds had to work hard, learn fast, and live by their wits and creativity in order to be successful.
It was an exhilarating but tough environment!
The motto in the Land of Learning was:
IMAGINE IT. TRY IT. PROVE IT. DO IT!
All the birds worked hard to prove their talent and earn their place in the sun.
In the Land of Learning the birds didn't always get along peaceably.
Sometimes there were conflicts and differences, struggles and irritations.
But conflicts and differences were valued because the birds believed that that's how new ideas get tested.
Discussion, debate, and argument — that's the way change was introduced and progress was made.
Nobody cared if you were a penguin or a peacock, a dove or a blue jay.
Being smart and talented and productive was all that mattered.
Initiative, creativity, and results were most highly prized.
It was what was inside you and what you contributed that counted — not the kind or color of feathers you wore.
But Perry the Peacock was in for some very different challenges when he left the Land of Learning and went to work in the Land of Penguins.
He was used to hard work and fighting for his ideas and competing with many different kinds of birds. But nothing in his background had prepared him for the unique ways and special customs of the Land of Penguins.
He wanted to do well and be successful.
He was flattered that these powerful and prestigious penguins had recruited him into their ranks, and he wanted to please them.
He studied the penguins' walk, their talk, and their style.
"How strange," he thought to himself, "they all look alike. they're like clones of each other."
He was intrigued and puzzled at the same time.
And as time went on, his troubles began ...
Some of the penguins began to grumble that his distinctive peacock voice was too loud.
You see, penguins speak in very subdued, modulated tones, and the peacock's laughter and excited exclamations startled their time-honored sense of propriety.
His feathers began to show more and more all the time, as he worked hard and accomplished many great things.
Everyone agreed that he was quite talented and productive, and they liked the impressive results of his work.
But his flashy, colorful style made some of the senior penguins uneasy.
Many of the other penguins in the land were delighted with this new and unusual bird in their midst.
They called him "a breath of fresh air" and welcomed his exuberance.
Some of the junior penguins privately speculated about how long he would last in the Land of Penguins.
They saw how un-penguinlike he was, and wondered how long this would be tolerated by the elders.
A couple of the senior penguins tried to take him under their wings and coach him.
"Look," they said, "we like your work, but some of the elders are uncomfortable with your style."
"You need to change to be accepted here."
"Why don't you put on a penguin suit, so you look more like us?"
"It doesn't fit," responded Perry the Peacock.
"It's too tight and constraining. My tail feathers will get crushed and my wings can't move well.
"I can't work if I'm not comfortable."
The elders said, "Well then, maybe you could paint your feathers black and white, like ours."
"Then at least you wouldn't look quite so different."
"What's wrong with the way I am?" Perry asked.
He was hurt and confused.
"I work hard, I produce great results — everyone says so.
"Why can't you look at my work rather than my feathers?
"Aren't my accomplishments more important than my style?"
"It's such a small thing," the penguins responded.
"You are smart and talented. You could have a bright future here. You just need to act more like us and then the elders will be more comfortable."
"You need to wear a penguin suit, and soften your voice, and shorten your steps."
"Just watch all the other penguins — see how they act?"
"Try to be like the rest of us."
Perry believed that their intentions were good, but their words wounded him nonetheless.
"Why can't I just be who I am? Why do I have to change to be accepted by you?" he asked.
"That's just the way things are here," the penguins shrugged.
"It's the same everywhere in the sea of organizations."
He suspected they might be right, but his heart didn't want to accept it.
He thanked them for their words of advice and their concern for him, and he went back to his nest to think things over.
As the months rolled by, he discussed his dilemma with some of the other birds he trusted.
Several of them were also new birds who had been recruited around the same time as Perry's arrival in the Land of Penguins.
Many of them were experiencing similar kinds of problems ...
Edward the eagle complained that he, too, was getting pressure to change.
He was smart and powerful and very skilled at his work, and he even wore the requisite penguin suit.
But Edward didn't talk or act like a penguin, and this bothered the elders.
They were embarrassed by his accent, and sent him to a prestigious, tradition-steeped Eastern Business school for special executive penguin training.
But it didn't work — he was still an eagle in penguin's clothing.
He couldn't change who he was.
And Helen the hawk had similar problems.
She was beautiful and powerful smart, sharp, and aggressive. She was a skilled hunter, with fierce competitive instincts.
She wore her penguin suit, occasionally more colorful than the male penguins, but still acceptable.
Helen tried to adapt to the style of the penguins, but her hawk-like nature would always reveal itself.
Her talons were sharp, her eyes piercing, her manner intense, her hunter's instincts ever alert.
And her aggressive style made the elders very uncomfortable.
It was the same story with Mike the Mockingbird.
He was an especially brilliant bird — creative, imaginative, and impulsive. He was attracted by sparkling ideas.
He flew fast, worked hard, and jumped around making good things happen all over the Land of Penguins.
But Mike soon discovered that penguins are territorial birds, who build their empires, establish their pecking order, and fiercely resent anyone who comes into their turf without being properly invited.
Since Mike was not a penguin, he was not sensitive to the politics and the turf issues of the senior penguins.
With his penchant for creativity and imagining possibilities outside the ordinary, he sometimes offended some of the elders by flying into their territories.
They were threatened and annoyed at his intrusions.
Like Edward the eagle and Helen the hawk, Mike wore his penguin suit and tried his best to learn the ways of the penguins so he would be accepted by them.
But ultimately, he could not change who he really was.
The story was similar with Sara the Swan.
She was an optimistic dreamer, with unusual visions for the future of the Land of Penguins.
She had interesting ideas, unique ideas, good ideas —
but her ideas often were not heard because she expressed them in such a gentle way.
Her style was graceful, her manner gracious, but the penguins had doubts about her toughness and her strength.
There were others as well ...
The thing they all had in common was that none of them had grown up in the Land of Penguins.
They had been recruited and hired from other places.
The penguin elders had enticed these outsiders with promises of success:
"We want your fresh thinking and new ideas. We admire your track record and want you to do great things for us."
But as soon as the new birds were inside the organization, the elders issued them penguin suits and began pressuring them to talk, act, and think more like penguins.
The penguins said, "We value diversity."
But their actions said otherwise.
As the exotic new birds discussed their mutual frustrations among themselves, they tried to figure out what to do.
Several of them decided to try to change the culture rather than let the culture change them.
"We'll work on our bosses, and other key penguins," they vowed, "without being too obvious, of course."
They each developed strategies for becoming Agents of Change within the Land of Penguins.
Edward the eagle adopted a "Strategy of Support."
Whenever his boss accepted any new idea, Edward would reinforce him by saying, "I appreciate your willingness to try something different. Your support makes my job interesting and rewarding."
Helen the Hawk had her own ideas about how to bring about change. she used a "Strategy of Hopeful Thinking."
Helen would regularly send her boss newspaper clippings and magazine articles with a personal note which read:
"Because of your continuing interest in learning new ways to handle our marketing, I thought you'd like to see the attached article about Prosperous enterprise, inc. in the recent issue of the 'Journal of successful organizations.'"
Mike the Mockingbird decided he would try an extremely bold strategy — a "Strategy of Calculated Ignorance."
Whenever Mike was questioned about making a particular decision, he would assume an expression of puzzlement as he described how a shortcut would achieve something that everyone had agreed was important.
Sara the Swan, being much gentler in her approach, tried a "Strategy of Safe Learning."
Sara would casually mention her ideas and suggestions in quiet conversations and informal settings.
She "planted ideas," nurtured them slowly, and watched for progress.
Some of the other birds — who were determined to transform themselves — tried very hard to become penguins.
They walked the penguin walk; they talked the penguin talk.
They preened and practiced to produce the desired result.
But ultimately they failed, because they couldn't change who they really were. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Peacock in the Land of Penguins by BJ Gallagher, Warren H. Schmidt, Sam Weiss. Copyright © 2015 Barbara "BJ" Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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