Early last year I visited the San Francisco Zoo with a friend who was visiting from Germany. She had wanted to see the zoo and I hadn’t been there since childhood. Late one afternoon, we drove out to the beach where the zoo is located, bought tickets and set out on our adventure.
Even though it had been some time since I’d been to the zoo, I couldn’t help noticing the experience wasn’t at all what I expected. Surprisingly, I felt I had walked in and disturbed the people who work there, like I had intruded on their territory. Workers wouldn’t look at you as they walked by. Maintenance equipment was as much on display as the animals. There were places that would have been great for viewing the cats and the other wildlife but they were filled with wheelbarrows, hoses and other implements for tending the animals. I was well aware we had entered the grounds late in the day, perhaps an hour before closing, but they were still open! Why was I feeling so unwelcome, so intrusive?
As we were leaving the zoo’s grounds I realized we had been engaged with a bureaucracy, a system unused to being in contact with the general public. Yet this was a concession specifically intended for the public, especially children. How could such a dysfunctional system pass muster given its large public profile?
A day or so later I sent an email to our mayor, whom I had found to be more responsive than most of his predecessors, offering to deliver a two-day workshop on system dynamics similar to the one I had done last year for a graduate business school’s executive education program. The name of the workshop is “Recognizing and Curing Systems Dysfunction: How Organizations Behave and Misbehave” and I offered to present it pro bono for the City and County of San Francisco. There was no response, either from the mayor or from whomever he may have forwarded my offer to.
Late last year, on Christmas Day, a tragedy occurred at the zoo which made the headlines around the world. Perhaps you saw the story. A young man who may or may not have been taunting the tigers, was killed by one of the magnificent cats when it leaped across the safety moat. She attacked three young men, who were later found to have slingshots in their possession, injuring one fatally. It was later determined the design of the cats’ enclosure was sub-par based on industry safety standards, so the management of the zoo, a private firm, appears to be complicit in this tragedy.
When police were summoned they shot and killed this beautiful 350 pound Siberian Tiger named “Tatiana.” The public was outraged, seemingly as much about the execution of the big cat as the young man losing his life.
Recently, a friend reminded me of mystical traditions that link great cats with power and large spirits, the embodiment of powerful spirit for which many cultures and traditions yearn. As she was talking I interpreted the death of this beautiful cat as a symbol of how dysfunctional systems suck the life from us, drain power and spirit from those who are in close contact with it. I could see the metaphorical irony in this: dysfunctional systems kill. They squelch the spirit, drain energy and contribute to decline in well-being and even death.
Think of all those people who work in systems sapping their “chi,” their spirit, their life force as they continue to endure conditions which are life-draining rather than life-affirming. Perhaps the story of Tatiana will inspire people who are putting up with work situations which are slowly killing them, like the parable of the boiled frog. Perhaps they’ll be inspired to either break free or transform their workplace to one that brings people back to life, performs at levels that excite everyone and allows for passionate engagement on the part of all who touch it, employees, owners, vendors, customers and, yes, even the animals!