Or an eagle? Or maybe a swan? Or what about a mockingbird?
BJ Gallagher Hateley and Warren Schmidt have written the fabulous book “A Peacock in the Land of Penguins; a Fable about Creativity and Courage”. It is charming and piercing, funny and poignant; a testimony to the beauty of being different in any organization and the struggle to gain a voice. Penguins are metaphorically portrayed as corporate styled birds in an icy climate dressed formally and universally in black and white attire at all times. Outsiders are other birds who have different but noble intentions and, despite integration efforts, cannot succeed in the penguins’ insular clan type organization. Ultimately these distinct feathered beings find themselves in a new space that embraces their uniqueness and offers them the freedom to be who they are; explore and invent opportunities, share their wisdom, reflect on possibilities and dream their dreams.
Are you a penguin or a peacock? Do you find it easy and safe to conform to a structured environment or do you fan your beautifully colored feathers wide and strut to a different drummer? Can you really change who you are or do you even want to?
Many large organizations have seemed to clone their staff to maintain internal harmony. The invisible logic is that employee sameness will allow the wheels to turn year after year without the risky diversion of change or implementation of new ideas. But this creates staleness in a competitive climate and hostile game playing to the more industrious person with good ideas and intentions. Eventually creative individuals find their paths but it is not often an easy journey. There are some companies that value special strengths (creative industries and small businesses are more open than their corporate counterparts) and will realize the value of these special birds but many “exotic birds” will find solace in building their own business on their own terms.
It is a credit to large companies that realize the instructional value of this book and teach diversity training and mutual respect among employees. The corporate climate is not friendly to peacocks but then it harbors grudges against outsiders of all types. And yet, it is important for penguins and peacocks to learn, listen and accept differences in one another without molting feathers. It is a life lesson for everyone whether or not they are still in the workplace.
So how did B.J. realize the world of penguins and peacocks? She was “much like the lead character…colorful and extravagant, noisy and messy, a bird who is difficult to ignore.”
She said, “ I lived it. I was working at the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980's and early 90's; we held regular meetings of the executive and middle management groups to review circulation figures, assess advertising revenues, and plan new goals. These meetings were always the same: The president with all his vice presidents and directors would sit in the front row in the elegant auditorium, and the publisher began the meeting by introducing each of them. One-by-one they would pop up out of their chairs and turn to face the 200 middle managers in the rows behind them. They all wore dark suits, white shirts, and business ties; they were all about the same height, save one or two tall ones; and all but one were white males (the lone female penguin wore a dark suit and pearls). By all appearances, you would think they all went to the same barber and the same tailor!
One morning I was sitting in one of these meetings, watching these fellows, like so many jack-in-the-boxes popping up, one right after another. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “They all look like penguins.” Then I looked down at myself. I was wearing my favorite Carole Little dress, a bright and bold floral, mid-calf, a bit flouncy (but very slimming). “What's wrong with this picture?” I asked myself. “I'm like a peacock in the midst of all these penguins!” I shook my head, wondering how this could have happened. How did I end up here?
Thus the metaphor was born.”