A long time ago when I was with GuySuCo there was an occasion when I found myself growing irritated because my secretary was urging me to find time for an interview with an old man, a pensioner from the old sugar times, who had been trying to see me for a couple of days. The excuse I made was that I was just back from an important meeting on GuySuCo’s strategic plan and had to write up my notes and there was little time between that and another important meeting I had to attend with a visiting trade delegation. “Try to put him off”, I said. “Or get someone else to see him.” I was, to put it briefly, full of myself and my importance.
But my secretary was far too good a secretary to be fobbed off with such pomposities and very soon I was interviewing the old man. And a very absorbing experience that turned out to be. For one thing, his talk about his long career in the sugar fields held me fascinated and reminded me how much that we think we know so well now was known even better long ago. And, for another thing, the particular grievance the old man had, and which he explained with care and precision, badly needed looking into and putting right and not only for his sake. When this was done a few days later and I saw the old man again, he expressed his thanks with dignity and a sense of the fitness of things. It was a good experience for me. The old man had made his case. And I mused on the lessons we should try to learn every day of our lives.
The truth is that most of us, if not all of us, are pompous in the extreme about what we do. We magnify our self-importance, puff the terrific contribution we are making. But is it really so? Or rather, do we get the perspective right when we consider how we are performing?
Do we dismiss much too easily the insights of others whom we feel are poorer than ourselves in intelligence, education, status or job position? We are fools if we do. I once read in a book written by Adrian Moyes, published by Oxfam, called The Poor Man’s Wisdom about technology and the poor. The argument was that too much attention is lavished on the “technologies of the rich” and too little use made of the existing skills of the poor. It is true that local technology is by no means always best, but local knowledge of local conditions usually is. Two brief illustrations taken from the book struck me. A 1970 survey in Ghana showed that the ordinary farmers’ knowledge of soils, from a practical point of view, was superior to that of university and agricultural extension staff. Secondly, a study of the Hanunoo people in the Phillipines revealed that the average adult could identify no less than 1,600 species of plant – some 400 more than was spotted by a systematic botanic survey. We do ill if we neglect the kind of ingrown knowledge and local skills which are to be found everywhere.
But I come back to the old pensioner whom I interviewed, fitting him in between strategic plan and visiting trade delegations, and I think I’ve got the focus on work, on life, a little clearer. Try to remember the importance of small causes. There should be time for the old pensioner who hobbles into the reception area and asks for an interview about getting a new pair of spectacles as well as time for the trade delegation selling vital fertilizers or machinery or seeking a big marketing contract. How to get the perspective right – that is the test of management – perhaps even the art of living itself.
There is a passage in Pasternak’s great novel Dr Zhivago which one should be careful to remember. The passage is about Strelnikov, caught in the huge ebb and flow of the Russian Revolution:
“And in order to do good to others he needed, besides the principles that filled his mind, an unprincipled heart – the kind of heart that knows of no general causes, but only of particular ones and knows the greatness of small actions.”