Who Says Elephants can’t go to Vienna?

How does a lowly Indian elephant-keeper (a mahout) get to advise a Captain of Portuguese King Joao III’s Imperial Guard on the logistics of transporting an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the sixteenth century? This is just one of the many hidden gems in Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s last (and posthumously published) novel, The Elephant’s Journey (2010), based on an actual event in which an Indian elephant and its mahout are given as a royal gift from King Joao to Archduke Maximilian.

A Captain of the Imperial Guard is assigned with troops, supplies and an escort to take the elephant to Vienna through Europe in the throes of the Reformation and civil war.  The mahout, on the other hand, is simply the elephant keeper, whose job it is to feed, clean and (when the occasion arises), to ride on top of the elephant through parades, dressed in gaudy clothes. The problem, however, is that the whole procession which leaves Lisbon in great fanfare is hopelessly behind schedule, and the daily accumulation of inefficiencies threaten to sabotage the whole expedition which needs to be completed before the winter snow closes up the route through the mountain passes enroute to Vienna.

The situation is not new:  even in business today, many a grand project gets crippled through inefficiencies. The people who can offer effective solutions (e.g. the mahout) are often afraid to speak, and even when they do, their suggestions are often ignored by the powers that be (e.g. the Captain). What does Subhro do differently?

1.       Timing: always an important factor. In this case, the mahout Subhro waits the first few days, until the inefficiencies become obvious to all members of the expedition, and the Captain is gloomily complaining of the problem, without any sign of a solution from either himself or his military advisors. So when Subro quietly suggests a word to the Captain, it is received with condescending amusement, but it is nevertheless received simply because no one else has come up with something better.

2.       Problem-Solving: Subhro’s proposal is directly tied up to the Captain’s ultimate objectives i.e. to get the elephant to Vienna by a certain date. The logistical changes proposed will neutralize the current problem (which is a great relief in itself), AND actually enable the journey to be completed earlier than was initially projected (which is an added bonus). This is not a politicking proposal designed to ingratiate Subhro to the Captain, but a practical and useful solution to the problem.

3.       Overcoming Resistance & Inertia: This is probably the biggest problem with implementing a solution. Whether out of ego, laziness, discomfort with change, or sheer lack of interest, most good initiatives are halted in their tracks before they even start. Subhro, however does establish informal relationships with the soldiers and captain as they discuss their theological differences around the nightly campfires. Though he is clearly of the servant rank, he makes confident repartees: when the soldiers dismiss his stories of the Hindu Gods as “fairytales,” he responds that it is no more so than a virgin birth, or turning water into wine at a wedding. He has already made his presence felt among his companions, so that when he does make a logistical proposal, they listen with some interest instead of simply ignoring it as some hare-brained idea.

4.       Getting Involved in Implementation: Once he gets the go-ahead from the Captain, he quickly takes ownership of the new transportation plan, inspecting the carts of elephant feed, ensuring a rotation among riding and walking soldiers, and providing daily progress reports to the Captain. Thus, even if his official ranking within the expedition is as a servant, his visible presence and inspection of the whole change implementation gives him a new authority which the soldiers and porters dare not question for fear of offending the Captain.

5.       Leveraging Sources of Power: Subhro knows that he is relatively insignificant, but that his charge (i.e. the elephant) is of immense importance to both the King and its unwilling recipient, The Archduke. Therefore, he counters any of the Captain’s objections to his proposal by citing the importance of the elephant’s well-being and necessity of being delivered on time. By the same token, he cited the Captain’s importance when attempting to persuade the soldiers and porters to carry out his proposals.

6.       Selectively Offering Advice: reorganizing the logistics of elephant transportation is clearly an area of professional competence for Subhro. However, he is judicious enough not to use his now favoured position as the Captain’s advisor to advise him in areas where he has no expertise. In matters of war, diplomacy and religion, he admits to his lack of expertise, and actively encourages his other companions to offer suggestions to the Captain, assuring them from his own experience that good ideas will be welcomed. Thus, he not only avoids the danger of giving bad advice, but also creates an egalitarian and team-involved atmosphere among his colleagues on the expedition. It is therefore no surprise that at the journey’s end, he is bid farewell by the Captain and his soldiers as a friend, rather than as a mere elephant-keeper when he started the journey.

Before, concluding this blog, I want to make a brief observation on the atypical sources of inspiration for my blogs of recent. As businesspeople, we are advised to stay abreast of new developments in the field of our expertise, which is usually taken to be provided by the ever-increasing number of ‘management’ books, the articles published in specialized journals (like The Harvard Business Review, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal). Undoubtedly, there is great value to be gleaned from these excellent sources, as I have dutifully done over the past few years. However, as I am a voracious reader of literature, history and personal essays, I have often found valuable insights come from these unorthodox sources. Sometimes insights do come from unusual places and people, like a mahout, a rider of elephants.

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