I was engaged in a momentary tidy of my library the other day and I came across a little booklet titled Bits & Pieces, a monthly mixture of horse sense and common sense about working with people. It dates from the 1970s, and is full of dull parables and aphorisms, aimed primarily at American middle managers of pre-information age industry. In common with much motivational management literature produced in far snazzier formats since, it makes observations about success, failure, motivation, and so on with references to working practices at a certain point of history (the golden age of capitalism, to be precise), and proclaims these as universal truths. It is both momentarily diverting and excruciatingly annoying. And it inspired me to produce my own parable about working with people.
One day ten or so years ago I was playing golf on a course outside Belfast. We were standing at one of the tees when we started to hear a a dog barking and wee girl crying in panic. The dog made its way out onto the fairway with a towrope around its neck. At the other end of the towrope was a mangy cat, and it didn’t look too comfortable as it got dragged out on its back by the dog. The wee girl, who was about ten, was running after them, and as the dog started to run round in circles in the middle of the fairway, she started screaming.
We ran down, and I got hold of the cat. The towrope was a blue plastic one, more than an inch thick. It was tight around the cat’s neck, the cat was screeching and gurgling, and there was blood trickling from its mouth. It was writhing and scratching as I tried to loosen the knot, which was so tight I couldn’t get any purchase at all. At the same time, the dog was still bounding around like mad, which made it doubly difficult to hold the cat steady enough to try and free it. My golf partner grabbed hold of the dog and tried untying the knot around its neck, so that we could free the cat, but it was very tight too.
We started to think that the cat was on the path to oblivion. Then we heard “hang on lads, coming through, I know how to fix this one”. When you’re in a situation of unexpected crisis, you tend to cede authority to the person whose confidence indicates that he or she holds the answers. So, we let through the tracksuited man with the fluffy moustache, whom we had previously seen collecting lost golf balls, and stood aside for him to do his thing.
His thing was, with a calm and controlled demeanour, to take the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth and try to use it to burn through the inch-thick rope. When the rope didn’t burn with the whoosh! he apparently expected, he applied the burning fag with greater pressure, and in a few seconds he had in fact used the rope to put his fag out.
What interests me here is why neither of us said to him ‘that’s never gonna work’ when an instant’s consideration would have revealed this. Rather, we stood there for the best part of a minute, listening to the cat honking like a swan, in the patient hope that his method really could work.
And -when he produced a lighter to light the second cigarette- we remained silent. It didn’t even occur to us to suggest using the lighter, which, whilst unlikely to produce the required results, had far better prospects than trying with a second Rothmans. It was only when he moved the second cigarette toward the rope that my golf partner said “I don’t think that’s going to work”, at which point the animal rescue expert said, with an air of studied resignation, “aye, you’re probably right.”
“Here mate try this,” a hitherto unseen ten-year-old boy said, proferring his Swiss Army knife. We used the knife to prise open the knot around the cat’s neck, and set it free, whereupon it fled -like a cat out of hell- toward the trees.
Moral of the story – be cautious about the advice of self-proclaimed experts, especially in a crisis, and always carry a Swiss Army knife, in case you ever have to free a strangulated cat.