A CHICKEN’S FATE (from Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie)

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My father spent the summer of 1904 on the farm of an aunt and uncle who lived a stone’s throw northeast of Lucknow in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. 

It so happened that the aunt and uncle had a son the same age as my father. Story has it that when the two boys were together, they were a couple of hellers with a genius for mischief.

One sunny Sunday, the boys feigned stomachaches and so were excused from going to church. Uncle hitched the horse to the family’s carriage and helped his wife on board, and the two of them rode off to town for their communal worship. Of course, as soon as their carriage was out of sight around the bend, the boys’ stomachaches miraculously disappeared, and the two 10-year-olds set about to find something to do. Wanting to impress my father, a city boy, the cousin asked:

“Do you know how to mesmerize a chicken?”

“Mesmerize? Uh-uh. What’s that?”

“Follow me.”

The cousin led the way to a ramshackle chicken coop out behind the farmhouse. There he selected a fine white hen. He carried her under his arm to the front of the house, produced a piece of chalk and drew a short line on the porch. He stood the creature over the chalk line and held her beak to it. After a moment or so, the boy slowly removed his hands. The chicken stood motionless, beak to the chalk line, hypnotized. My father hooted with glee.

                            “Let’s do another one! Let’s do another one!” he pleaded.

The two boys ran back to the hen house for another chicken. And another. And another. Before long, the hen house was empty, and the front porch was filled with 70 or so dead-silent, stark-still chickens straddling chalk lines, beaks seemingly glued to the porch.

The boys, too, seemed hypnotized — mesmerized by this glorious example of their own cleverness. A breeze gently rippled the feathery coats of the unmoving chickens. In the distance, soft thudding hooves and the rattle of turning carriage wheels signaled the return of Aunt and Uncle. Wouldn’t they be surprised at this latest joke? (Aunt and Uncle did take a perverse pride in the boys’ escapades.)

But wait! There were two carriages, not one. Behind the family’s carriage followed a small runabout driven by the preacher! Aunt and Uncle had invited their Scottish Presbyterian reverend to come to lunch (or dinner, as they said back there, back then). Worse, Aunt had already explained to the preacher that boys had not been at church because they were ill.

Upon seeing the fowl foolery, Uncle flew into an embarrassed rage, leapt off the carriage and bounded onto the porch, place-kicking chicken after chicken back to consciousness. Feathers and clucking and curses filled the air. The preacher, scandalized, turned his carriage around and, without a word, fled back to town, never to return.

The same thing that happened to those chickens can happen to you. When you join an organization, you are, without fail, taken by the back of the neck and pushed down and down until your beak is on a line — not a chalk line, but a company line. And the company line says things like:

“This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our policies. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are.”

If you are not careful, you will be hypnotized by this line.

And what a pity if that happens.

When you come into an organization, you bring with you an arcane potency, which stems, in part, from your uniqueness. That, in turn, is rooted in a complex mosaic of personal history that is original, unfathomable, inimitable. There has never been anyone quite like you, and there never will be. Consequently, you can contribute something to an endeavor that nobody else can. There is a power in your uniqueness — an inexplicable, unmeasurable power… a magic.

But if you are hypnotized by an organization’s culture, you become separated from your personal magic and cannot tap it to help achieve the goals of the organization. In losing connection with your one-of-a-kind magic, you are reduced to nothing more than part of the headcount. Deep inside the Hairball.

So, whenever you feel your head being pushed down onto an organization’s cultural chalk line, remember the challenge is to move out of the way, to choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of the company. Instead, find the goals of the organization that touch your heart and release your passion to follow those goals.

It is a delicate balance, resisting the hypnotic spell of an organization’s culture and, at the same time, remaining committed from the heart to the personally relevant goals of the organization. But if you can achieve that balance and maintain it, you will be out of the Hairball and into Orbit, the only place where you can tap your one-of-a-kind magic, your genius, your limitless creativity.