The Nail that Sticks Out

Posted by jlubans on November 08, 2016

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Caption: He who sticks out about to get hammered.

At the same time I was putting to bed the first three chapters of my soon to-be-published book, Fables for Leaders, I saw the obituary of Junko Tabei, the first female to climb Mt. Everest.
The obituary elaborates on how Ms. Tabei did not let her society’s views on a woman’s place interfere with what she wanted to do. She recalled that she and her all women’s climbing team were told, "…we should be raising children instead".
Even though she downplayed her accomplishment - "I was the 36th person to climb Everest" is how she modestly described her accomplishment - she was nevertheless criticized for standing out. Just like what happens to many people who do more, who achieve more, who accomplish more, who simply work harder. In Industry the “rank and file”, we are told, despises the “rate buster” because the rate buster moves the bar and makes others work harder. I blogged on this phenomenon “The Freedom to Excel”, Aleksei G. Stakhanov’s story and how his Herculean mining feats were politically corrupted.
A Japanese proverb gave Ms. Tabei insights into why some in her society felt they had the right to criticize her achievements: "The nail that sticks out will be hammered down." (There's someirony around that tall nail; Ms. Tabei stood, 4 ft 9 inches (145 centimeters).
And that’s where my “Fables for Leaders” comes in.
In my book, I have at least two fables (one by Abstemius and the other by me) that show the dilemma of being the first at anything or doing a job better than anyone else. Instead of a pat on the back or a sincere “Well done!” envy may lead to faultfinding.
My “Proud Blackberry” fable is about being first and I refer
to the Australian proverb of the tall poppy; “for all his eminence, he’s the first to be cut. Therefore, don’t be like the candle that brags on its flame only to see it put out.”
And, in Capons Fat and Lean I recycled the Australian proverb, “the tallest flower in the field is the first to be cut.”
(I’ll be amending that fable and replacing the Australian proverb with the Japanese version.)
So, is standing out only to get hammered something to avoid? Are we then to follow only the road well traveled and seek only the traditional way?
No.
Ms. Tabei used the proverb to explain what she observed. It helped her understand the criticism, the envy. If anything it’s implicit unfairness motivated her to go full speed ahead. I would guess there was no stopping Ms. Tabei; her efforts could only improve Japanese society’s view of a woman’s role. Her success expanded the traditional role – however uncomfortably for her male counterparts – beyond tea making, caring for children, cooking and waiting for the breadwinner to make his way home from the office.
In that regard, and perhaps in a way Ms. Tabei would appreciate, that my blackberry fable has a contrarian moral; the blackberry turns the table on the fox that has gobbled up the proud blackberry.
In an I-told-you-so voice Reynard, the fox, tells the blackberry that’s what happens to those that stand out. “On hearing the fox , a voice gurgled deep inside: “Au contraire, mon ami, my destiny is to be eaten and I have the honor to be the first of my brethren. You, Monsieur Reynard, are a mere vehicle, a bus d'auto. Next, when you hear the call of nature, I will fall onto the earth and soon reappear as a new cane to snag your raggedy tail with my thorns.”
I expect Ms. Tabei’s accomplishments will be spoken of for many years and will inspire many women to seek their own way.
And, surely, her exceptionalism will continue to snag the tails of her critics.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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