When You Grab a Cat By the Tail: Small Bursts of Inspiration for Busy People

When You Grab a Cat By the Tail: Small Bursts of Inspiration for Busy People

by Rob Lebow, William L. Simon
The man who sets out to grab a cat by its tail learns something that will always be useful.-Mark TwainIn other words, we all learn from experience. And for those times when experience doesn't provide the answer, you might find it in When You Grab a Cat by the Tail. This book offers a rich collection of quotes, observations, and anecdotes from luminaries, historical


The man who sets out to grab a cat by its tail learns something that will always be useful.-Mark TwainIn other words, we all learn from experience. And for those times when experience doesn't provide the answer, you might find it in When You Grab a Cat by the Tail. This book offers a rich collection of quotes, observations, and anecdotes from luminaries, historical figures, and some folks you might not know. And though it is from two authors renowned for their contributions to the business world, these pearls of practical wisdom can not only help you in your business and workplace dealings, but in any interpersonal relationship or even in a moment of personal doubt.Equally appropriate as bedtime reading or when you need a moment of reflection during your busy day, When You Grab a Cat by the Tail is both timely and timeless. With gems of inspiration from several lifetimes of experience between its covers, it will help you develop your strengths, brighten your spirit, and put a smile on your face.

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SelectBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 2007

Rob Lebow and William L. Simon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59079-108-0

Chapter One Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories

* * *

Financial wizard Bernard Baruch was a confidant to five United States presidents starting with Herbert Hoover. During this period in American history, he literally saw his country change from horses and buggies to the nuclear age. As Baruch left his Georgetown flat on his ninety-second birthday, a young reporter asked him how it felt to be ninety-two. Looking at the lad, he responded kindly, with his characteristic dry wit, "Young man, it feels pretty good being ninety-two, considering the alternative!"

Like growing old, change is inevitable and hard to accept ... but better than its alternative.

And not just for people. In the worlds of government and business, those organizations that cannot or will not change are doomed to a slow death. That's what history teaches us ...


* * *

When Robert Fulton first showed off his new invention, the steamboat, skeptics were crowded on the bank of the Hudson River yelling, "It'll never start! It'll never start!"

But it did.

After a lot of cranking and groaning, the new boat got going.

As the steamboat made its way down the Hudson River on its maiden voyage, these same skeptics were quiet for only the briefest of moments, when they started chanting, "It'll never stop! It'll never stop!"


* * *

The U.S. standard railroad gauge-the width between the two rails-is 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. To most, that's an odd number, and yet it was and is the standard for every commercial train system in our country. "Why was that peculiar measurement used?" you might ask. The answer may bring a laugh about how hard it is to change things.

The American railroads were initially based on the standard being used in England. The British used this gauge because tramways at some of their mines used it. And why were the tramways built to that gauge? Because the people who built them used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building horse-drawn wagons.

But why did the wagons have that odd wheel spacing? It has to do with "wheel ruts," of all things. The ruts in the dirt and mud roads of England were that distance apart; if the wagon-makers had used any other spacing, the wagons would have dragged along off-kilter-one wheel up on the surface, the other riding in a rut. The goods would have constantly spilled out, not to mention the drivers and passengers, and the wheels would have broken often. So building wagons with wheels just far enough apart to fit into the ruts was a necessity, a no-brainer.

And why did the roads of England have ruts with this curious dimension? Because the roads had first been built when England was a dominion of Imperial Rome, as part of the massive construction campaign of roadways and waterways created by the Romans throughout much of Europe some two thousand years ago. Incredibly, many of those very roadways were still in use and still bearing the same dimension of wheel ruts from Roman times, ruts created by the Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made by or for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The width of those Roman chariots was designed to be just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two Roman war horses.

This means that the U.S. standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 81/2 inches was actually derived from the original specification of an Imperial Roman war chariot more than two thousand years ago, over three thousand miles away, which was based on the rump width of horses!

Now you know the history of the standard, but it doesn't stop there. The insurmountable momentum of this standard thrives even today. When you see that picture of an American space shuttle sitting on its launch pad, gleaming with the latest technology human ingenuity can muster, remember these additional facts.

There are two big booster rockets, called solid rocket boosters or SRBs, attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. The story goes that the engineers who designed the SRBs wanted to make the boosters a bit wider to gain additional thrust, but the thrusters have to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains, a tunnel only slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as-you guessed it-two horses' behinds.

So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system ever conceived was determined over two thousand years ago based on the width of two horses' behinds!


* * *

Sometimes life just doesn't seem to be fair, and we just have to make the best of it.

* * *

Guys aren't able to get $15 or $20 million [a year] anymore, so you have to play for the love of the game! New York Knicks star Penny Hardaway, bemoaning the National Basketball Association's idea of a salary cap while he was playing for the Orlando Magic

* * *


* * *

A young woman named Ellen married a young man who came from a small town in another state. Her new husband, Steve, often mentioned how much he enjoyed his mother's pot roast. Ellen decided to surprise Steve and called his mom for the recipe. When she read the handwritten reply from her mother-in-law, Ellen realized she had a question about the cooking instructions.

At the next family gathering, she found herself at one point alone in the kitchen with Steve's mom and took the opportunity to clear up the mystery. "There's one part I didn't understand," she began. "The recipe says to buy a 5 1/2 to 6 pound brisket. But then it says to cut off the end. Why do you buy that size roast and then cut off the end?"

The older women paused for a moment and then said, "Well, dear, that's the way I learned to do it. That's the way we've always made it in our family."

Steve's grandmother had come into the kitchen while they were talking and started to grin as she overheard the conversation. Steve's mom turned to her mother for help. "Mother," she said, "why do we always cut off the end of the brisket?"

At that, Grandma burst out laughing. "Honey," she explained, "we were so poor in the old days, we couldn't afford a pot large enough for the whole roast, so we had to cut the end off."

For forty years, Steve's mother had been cutting the end off the brisket simply because that's the way it had always been done.

How many things in your life or in your organization are out of date and holding back change?


* * *

Put five chimpanzees into a cage. Hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. Before long, a chimp will go to the stairs and start climbing toward the banana.

At that moment, spray all the chimpanzees with cold water. Continue this procedure-each time a chimp puts a foot on the stairs, spray them all with cold water.

Eventually, all the chimpanzees will have learned that the stairs are to be avoided.

Then remove one of the chimpanzees and introduce a new one in its place.

Soon, the new chimp will spot the banana and head for the stairs. To his horror, all the other chimpanzees will attack him. After another attempt and another attack, he begins to understand that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, replace another of the chimpanzees. Of course, the same thing happens: whenever the chimp heads for the stairs, he'll be attacked, until he finally stops trying.

Here's where the experiment gets interesting: Continuing in the same way, you eventually replace the last of the original chimpanzees, the last one that knew that one chimp trying to climb the stairs would get them all an uncomfortably cold shower. Nonetheless, when the fifth new chimp starts for the stairs, the others will all attack him.

None of them know the original reason. They only know that no chimpanzees can be allowed to approach the stairs.


* * *

Management has been compared to owning and riding a horse because the manager (the owner/rider) has to direct its course, control its speed, groom it, and provide resources. Common sense suggests that when you discover you're managing or working on a project that has turned into the equivalent of a dead horse, you should follow the advice of the Lakota Indians, who had an adage that stated, "When you discover you're riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount." But, in today's worlds of business and government, instead of simply admitting mistakes, cutting losses, and dismounting, other strategies are often tried, like these-

1. Buy a stronger whip

2. Change riders

3. Threaten the horse with termination

4. Appoint a committee to study the dead horse

5. Arrange to visit other sites to see how they ride their dead horses

6. Lower the standards so that dead horses can be included in performance appraisals

7. Create an ad campaign with the slogan, "This horse is not dead," and use it to establish brand recognition

8. Hire outside contractors to ride the dead horse

9. Create an exciting incentive program for dead horses

10. Donate the dead horse to a recognized charity and deduct its full original cost, making the IRS your riding partner

11. Provide additional funding to increase the horse's performance

12. Do a time-management study to see if lighter riders would improve productivity

13. Purchase an after-market product that promises to make dead horses run faster

14. Rewrite the performance requirements for dead horses

And, finally-

15. Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position with a corner office.


* * *

If I want to change the results, I have to change myself first. This is particularly true for me, the ... CEO, but it is equally true for every employee. Ralph C. Stayer CEO, Johnsonville Sausage Company, Wisconsin

* * *

Once upon a time, a sausage maker realized his business was in trouble. As head of the Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage, Ralph Stayer set out to discover the problem. He hired a research team to conduct a survey of his employees and was startled by the results. What dismayed him was the news that his typical employee saw nothing at Johnsonville but a place to earn a salary.

Sure, you might think it shouldn't have come as a surprise that workers in a sausage factory weren't finding a lot of job satisfaction. But this was a family-owned business, and Ralph Stayer had been imagining a work force dedicated to the company.

After a lot of soul searching, Stayer decided the problem wasn't with the employees, but with himself. "I had made all the decisions about purchasing, scheduling, quality, pricing, marketing, sales, hiring, and all the rest of it." He finally came to accept that his employees lacked commitment to Johnsonville Sausage because he had left them no authority to make decisions or to control their own work.

So he took a radical step: He placed full authority in the hands of the management team, giving them responsibility for company decision making.

That should have produced a happy outcome-right?


Stayer had gone, in his words, "from authoritarian control to authoritarian abdication." The managers struggled to meet the challenge of taking control because all they had ever known was a very different management style. Previously, the number one rule had been "Take all tough decisions to the boss." Now, they believed, Ralph was asking them to assume both the risk and the responsibility. And they wanted no part of it. They were happy with the way things had been. They were not open to these new ideas. The whole thing just scared them.

Give Ralph Stayer credit. He wasn't deterred by this rebuff. Instead, he turned to the rank-and-file workers, the same workers who in the past had behaved like robots, day in and day out. Here was the surprise: Given the opportunity to be involved with the business, the workers jumped at the challenge.

By outlining the risks and the opportunities the future held and asking for his people's help and involvement, Ralph had started a grass-roots revolution in his business. It was rocky sledding at first for everyone because he had to learn to let go and to trust. For the managers, because they had to become coaches and people who inspired. For the line workers, because they had to become immersed in business skills and learn how to "own their jobs."

The workers rolled up their sleeves and took on the challenge. This meant they had to learn budgeting, scheduling, quality control, and all other aspects of the organization's business-jobs they had never been expected to do in the past.

Was the experiment a success? At the time Ralph began his journey, Johnsonville's annual revenues were under $80 million. Today, Johnsonville Sausage is a billion-dollar-plus business and its products are distributed and carry a reputation for quality all over the United States.

In the process, Ralph and his people learned valuable lessons about trust, character, and faith in people.

Change is tough, but constructive change is always worth the risks and the effort. Johnsonville grabbed a cat by the tail and survived to thrive and enjoy the journey.

Interested in knowing more about this fascinating story? You might want to pick up the book Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer, Warner Books, 1994.

* * *

Just imagine what it would feel like if your job were being totally reshaped right before your eyes.... It is. We are being transformed even at this very moment, by our extraordinary velocity and by the emergence of a newly insistent force-The Power of Now. Stephen Bertman Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed

* * *


* * *

How we define an employee has changed. The conventional practice of management is gone. The whole employee-employer relationship has been transformed. Attitudes and values of the workforce have shifted. People simply don't run their careers the way they did in times past. The young new employees are the intense children of technology-the pushy offspring of our networked global economy, the rash youngsters born of the Internet.

The new generation are headstrong, irreverent smart alecks that thumb their noses at tradition and talk back. They aren't going to respond to traditional management beliefs and practices. They insist on special treatment. This is reality. They require us to move at a higher metabolic rate. They hold our future in their hands.

It's now an employee's market. The twentieth century ended with the United States' unemployment rate remaining at its thirty-year low. This confronts managers with one of their biggest challenges: finding competent people. Talent is the scarcest it's been at any time throughout the working careers of most people who currently hold a job.

U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Excerpted from WHEN YOU GRAB A CAT BY THE TAIL by ROB LEBOW WILLIAM L. SIMON Copyright © 2007 by Rob Lebow and William L. Simon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rob Lebow is founder and Chairman of the Lebow Company, Inc. and runs management training programs and seminars throughout North America. He has appeared in Inc., Fortune, Success, and Incentives magazines, to name a few.William L. Simon, is a bestselling author of business books and narrative non-fiction, has also written extensively for screen and television.

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