Sunday, October 01, 2006

We Are Not All the Same

In another life, I spent 4 years in Kenya. Every morning at daybreak, I'd pilot a hot-air balloon full of tourists over the Masai Mara game reserve. It was a fantastic time for me - I was doing something exciting in one of the most beautiful, diverse places on the planet.

Each morning a crew of 15 Kenyans would prepare the balloon and help at the launch. The passengers would pile into the wicker basket and off we'd float over the magnificent landscape, game-spotting from our lofty vantage point and usually landing near some hippo pools, where the crew would have already raced ahead and prepared a full breakfast.

For many passengers it was the highlight of their trip - perhaps even their lives! - sitting in the middle of the African savannah after an exhilarating flight, eating an English breakfast and drinking champagne. Most of the time they simply summed it up by saying, "Thank you for the best morning of my life!" Now
that's job satisfaction.

But my job was easy, really: I was the 'bwana'. That's what the Kenyans often called me. It means a lot more than 'mister' and hopefully a lot less than 'master'.

Most of the time, I let the crew get on with their work as a team, interfering as little as possible. After all, they had seen plenty of pilots before me. They worked hard physically, to unpack and pack the balloon - all 350,000 cu.ft of it fully inflated - and prepare the tables and chairs for breakfast. Everything had to be loaded and unloaded onto the back of an ancient Bedford truck manually. And their pay wasn't great; certainly not compared to yours or mine.

Still, there was one guy, Gabriel, who never seemed to be doing much at all. Often seems to be the way with teams, doesn't it? I watched Gabriel for a few weeks and, by my judgement, he was certainly doing a lot less than the other guys on the crew. Not only that, he was always the first to have his breakfast which the crew did when the passengers had gone.

"This guy isn't pulling his weight," I fumed to myself, "because, after all, it's only fair that they all do the same amount of work, isn't it?" So, I resolved to talk to the crew chief, a man named Makalla, to tell
him to get his act into gear, talk to Gabriel and get him to pull his weight.

Makalla came to see me and I launched into a lengthy explanation, which seems to be the way to make your point in Africa. Makalla nodded and nodded while I was talking, and the more I talked the more I agreed with my own point of view. "This is great - I'm getting somewhere," I noted to myself as I continued lecturing about team dynamics, leadership, equality and fairness. "Maybe I can make a difference here, be a leader.",

When I finished, Makalla simply looked at me and said, "But bwana Alex,
we are not all the same."

I deflated, depressed. I wondered if they would ever get the point.A couple of weeks later,
I got the point.

It was a windy dawn. The burners were roaring hot air into the balloon when the tether rope slipped and I was dragged under the basket for about 50 metres as the balloon was being pushed along by the wind. I had managed to turn off the burners and pilot light but was struggling to pull the rip-line which would open the top of the balloon and deflate it.Then I heard Gabriel shout - "bwana Alex! bwana Alex!", saw him running, and next, risk reaching in to grab the rip-line, very likely saving me from serious injury.

How many of our organizational teams are as adept at dealing with diversity as my African team?

How many of our organizational leaders really can accept that we are not all the same?

How many of our organizational leaders can create environments where even the different can shine?

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