This article first appeared in the October 2, 2014 Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with permission from Fennimore Times Editor Rob Callahan.
Once upon a time a Duke said to his horse buyer, “You have served well. But the years have taken a toll. Is there a member of your family who can take your place when you can no longer do the job?”
The horse buyer replied, “My children’s talents lie elsewhere. They can tell a good, but not a superlative horse. There is a farmer in the village who knows horses.”
The Duke talked to the farmer and soon gave him a trial, sending him to a neighboring state to buy a horse. On his return the Duke asked “What did you buy?” The farmer hesitated, but replied, “A gray mare.”
Word came later that a black stallion, as purchased by the farmer, would be delivered in a few days. The Duke was befuddled and complained to the horse buyer that his friend was an idiot. How could anyone who knew horses confuse an animal’s color and sex?
In response, the horse buyer mused, “Is he really that good? If so, he is better than me. You see, it’s possible he only looked at what was important—the horse’s spirit, ability, and performance—ignoring the unimportant. Let’s wait and see.”
The horse turned out to be superlative; as good if not better than any the horse buyer had ever purchased for the Duke . . . .
This is an ancient Taoist story. I first read it years ago and have paraphrased J.D. Salinger’s version from “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction” (Little, Brown and Co., 1955).
The story reminds me, in dealings with people, to ferret out and focus on what matters and to be accepting of what does not matter.
I once supervised a professor whose office was notoriously untidy. While visiting one day I pulled a twenty-plus year old memo from the bottom of a pile of papers. Colleagues complained about his messiness. But, I ignored their complaints and accepted his behavior because he was a productive and respected instructor and because his office was deeply buried on campus and offered no threat to any visitor’s first impression.
At least I ignored it until the Fire Marshall reported that the pile of papers had gotten so high it represented a fire hazard. Then, and only then, did his messiness become important. I made him tidy up.
That professor’s engagement in the work of the university, his performance as a teacher and advisor, and the respect his students and colleagues had for him was important. His untidiness, until it threatened the safety of others, was unimportant.
In our businesses, organizations, associations, communities, and, yes, colleges, people too often get caught up in the unimportant. I have observed passionate, engaged, capable, hard-working, and productive co-workers being shunned, made the object of ridicule, harangued, recommended for layoff or reassignment, and otherwise ill-treated based on the unimportant. They dared to display, even once, a personality trait, a habit of communication, ways of doing things, physical attributes, or other qualities which certain thought-leaders deemed objectionable.
These days every enlightened soul knows it is wrong to treat people differently based on sex, age, race, skin color, creed, religion, national origin, disability, ancestry, political affiliation, marital status, pregnancy, or sexual orientation.
But keep an untidy office, be over or under weight, talk too much or too little, be too assertive or too meek, say the wrong thing, provide constructive criticism, display a tendency toward anger or whininess, or really say or do anything that some group of people perceive as objectionable and even the enlightened will be on you like ugly on an ape.
A focus on the important and acceptance of the unimportant would go a long way toward creating healthier, happier, more welcoming, and more productive organizations, associations, and communities.
But don’t get me wrong. There are gradations that shift the calculus. My colleague’s untidy office was unimportant and acceptable; until it became a fire hazard. Assertiveness may be unimportant or even an asset; bullying, abusive, or harassing behavior is unacceptable. Occasional faultfinding matters not; honest feedback is a positive; excessively judgmental behavior that diminishes individual or team performance matters.
As a leader, I work hard to differentiate the important from the unimportant. What matters is how employees treat and talk with others, the passion and engagement they bring to the job, and the contributions they make toward realization of the organization’s vision, mission, purposes, values, and strategic directions.
What should never matter is personality type, weaknesses or failings of character, quirks, eccentricities, habits, or any other qualities which do not interfere with an individual’s performance or the organization’s ability to achieve its ends.