Dancing Elephants, Leadership, and Culture (Or, what I did on my vacation)

A few months ago, I was browsing through the bargain books in the CBU bookstore and stumbled upon Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?. The title more than anything caught my attention (well, ok: the cover was orange, which is my colour, so that may have been a factor). I figured for $1, it was worth the gamble, and I purchased it without even reading the back cover. When packing for my trip to Newfoundland, I tossed this unread book into my small suitcase just in case I had the opportunity to read it.

I should say, I travel with a ridiculous number of books on a regular basis. The small suitcase had nothing BUT books in it. Some for the research I was working on, some for the course prep I was planning to do, some for pleasure. It's a good thing I'm able to drive and take the ferry, or I'd be paying extra luggage fees!

Anyway, about 10 days into my vacation, in search of a change, I decided to start reading the orange book with the curous title: Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?: Leading a Great Enterprise Through Dramatic Change by Louis V Gerstner. It had friends and family asking a lot of questions. "Do people say elephants can't dance? And, can they?" Still only a few pages in, I replied (thinking back to a science program I had watched a decade ago), "Well, studies have shown elephants can run. Why shouldn't they dance?" Then, "Oh, it's a book on leadership? Who or what is the elephant in this story?" Smiling, I replied, "I'll let you know when I'm done."

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? is, in fact, the story of IBM from 1992 when it was on the brink to about 2002 when the turnaround was just about complete. It is written by Louis V Gerstner, the CEO sometimes referred to as "Louis the Last" (a commentary on the dire situation of IBM at the time) who taught modern dance to an elephant.

I was surprised by this book. It is incredibly well-written. The language is accessible and engaging, and it is actually a bit of a page turner. Who would have guessed that a leadership book would be hard to put down? Not me, I admit. The funny anecdotes throughout are memorable and will in some cases make you chuckle out loud (like the one about shirt colour). The level of detail was also impressive. I'm not sure if Gerstner is hoarder of documents (I don't judge with that comment: this seems to be a prerequisite for life in academia) or if IBM has a formidible archive, but text from memos and recollections based on meeting notes also pop up throughout the book, grounding the reflection.

Most interesting to me was the section on the culture of IBM at the time that Gerstner took over and the difficult work of shifting that culture as part of the overall strategy to limber up the elephant. As someone who owned a Commodore 128 in the 1980s (it was my first computer at the tender age of 8!), I also really enjoyed reading about the explosion of technology, the expectations for directions networking would take, and the challenges around compatibility. I remember clearly the talk about how Commodore would eventually be "IBM compatible" (which, of course, never happened as far as I know). In some ways, this was a bit of a stroll down memory lane and helped to put that personal experience into a broader context. My location added another layer to the experience: a cottage in Bonne Bay Pond, where there is no cell service and access to the internet is only available through dial-up.

So, while the book (published in 2003) is perhaps a bit dated (kind of like the "technology" available at our cottage), I think it's still valulable. Entertaining and insightful, and time well-spent on my vacation…