Little Man in a Big Suit

In a week when we remembered the anniversary of Katrina with another hurricane slamming into New Orleans, and we were reminded of the paucity of leadership among our politicians, and children are returning to school, I came across this reflection. It was broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme as a thought for the day.

Many years ago I remember a bunch of student accountants of my acquaintance doing a skit at a concert which involved miming to a then current song by the band Talking Heads. The song in question was ‘we’re on the road to nowhere’ which involved a degree of self-mockery that, in my experience, is not common among accountants. The fact that some of them have since gone on to manage multi-national companies and are owning yachts and vineyards and I am where I am prompts the question about who had the last laugh.

The other thing I remember about Talking Heads is the enormous suit David Byrne the lead singer used to wear. It was several sizes too big for him and designed to mess about with your perception, making his head look really small in the enormous clothing.

I think the idea of a little man in a big suit is what has stuck with me all these years.

What exactly brought it to mind this week, I’m not sure. But being too small for the coat you are forced to wear is surely a deeply uncomfortable thing. Think of the poor child going to big school on the first day, drowning in apprehension and an oversized blazer.

The world is full of little men in big suits. Little women too. Some of them have been forced into that position. I think of Michael D Brown, who worked for the International Arabian Horse Association and was promoted by his friend George Bush to be the Head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was all fine until hurricane katrina struck and he was revealed as a little man in big suit, with the famous plea to President Bush – can I quit now? It’s hard not to have sympathy.

Others, however, greedily reach beyond themselves to pull on clothes that were never designed for their frame. Still others sleepily stumble into the wrong outfit entirely and wake to find that the clothes on their back are not theirs at all.

Dr Laurence J Peter wrote about what became known as the Peter Principle, which states that in a hierarchical structure, people tend to be promoted to the level of their incompetence. Or, in his more colourful phrase, the cream rises until it sours.

Another expert observer of humanity once asked whether there was any profit in gaining the whole world but losing one’s soul.

Essential to fighting the Peter Principle is a realistic assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and where such awareness is absent, the availability of good counsel from wise friends prepared to speak the truth.

To be in possession of both, is better than any number of bespoke suits from saville row.

2 thoughts on “Little Man in a Big Suit

  1. A brilliant piece. This is one of my biggest struggles. How can we create excellent organisations? It continues my question from ikonbelt. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

  2. I have a friend who says that all human institutions – banks, schools, churches,even health services, survive on the basis of human sacrifice. I think he’s right. All are fallen. Is it perhaps our role to bear witness to the fact. Maybe with the benefit of a coffee together we could solve the problem!!

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