Brass Elephants

We were asked to bring a personal artifact to a workshop. And after much hand-wringing over what item of personal significance to bring to a professional training, I opted for one of a pair of brass elephant sculptures given to me by Raj, a beloved colleague and friend.

I brought Raj to Arlington to build an Oracle team to salvage an unsuccessful implementation and put in place the processes and practices that would serve the school system well moving forward. He was young, skilled, highly professional and fully capable of the task. More noteworthy to me, Raj was thoughtful, reflective, humble and he had the soft skills – the people skills to lead the culture change necessary to successfully integrate Oracle into the existing work environment. From the first time I spoke to him on the phone, through the hiring process, the many long and difficult meetings successfully getting the work done, and even since leaving Arlington for bigger and better things, I have always admired and appreciated Raj, both personally and professionally.

The last Christmas I was in Arlington, Raj went home to India for a couple of weeks to see his family. And upon his return, he came to see me with a large gift bag in hand and a big smile on his face.

“Walter, I have brought you something from India.”

“Raj that is very thoughtful of you. You know you didn’t have to get me anything.”

Image“Yes but I wanted to.” He handed me the heavy bag. Inside were two large white boxes. I carefully removed one and then the other from the oversized bag, and opened the first box, packed with tissue. As I pulled sheet after sheet out from within, the crown of the head of one of the large brass elephant statues came into view. I removed the protective packing more quickly now, wanting to see exactly what this was. Raj smiled with anticipation as he watched me bring the elephant out into the natural light streaming in my office windows. It was an impressive sight. And as I stood there appreciating it, Raj explained to me its significance.

“Walter, in India this is the great Hindu God, Ganesh. He is highly revered and a symbol of kings.”

“Raj, I don’t know what to say,” I replied as I released the second elephant from its packaging.

“Ganesh is the remover of obstacles,” Raj continued to explain with a proud smile on his face. “I wanted you to have him.”

“Raj they are impressive,” I answered, thinking of how they could make substantial bookends.

“Walter, you have been my remover of obstacles. This is why I wanted to give these to you.”

Wow. That did it. Wake up call! Raj got me to understand the real significance of this gift. All this time I had thought of Raj as my go-to Oracle guy…my living Good-to-Great management role model…my best hire. And yet at the same time, simply by making sure he had my support and access to all the resources he needed to be successful, Raj saw me as his remover of obstacles. I was completely humbled by this realization.

ImageIsn’t it amazing the things we attribute to others in our lives? The strengths we believe they bring to the relationship…the things we think they give to us…the qualities we see them bringing out in us…we truly empower other people by the ways we perceive them making a difference for us. And yet in reality, it is not about what others bring to us. The single greatest gift we may ever experience is to be an obstacle remover:  to allow them to get past the impediments in their lives so that they can realize their full potential. Raj helped me to realize this. It is in freeing others from the things that may hold them back that we allow them to be a gift to us. Everyone wins. Everyone grows. Everyone succeeds.

Imagine the ways the world would change if we each became an obstacle remover for others. Instead of doing things or giving things, simply helping to ensure the path ahead is clear for them to fulfill their goals and dreams and potential as people. Think about it and realize the implications as we conclude another year of opportunities and challenges…and look to the new year ahead.

The gift Raj gave to me was not two brass elephant sculptures, but a new understanding of how I make a difference. I was already doing this obstacle removing, albeit unwittingly, but I did not appreciate the difference it made for the people working for me nor for the people in my personal life. Does obstacle removing ensure that those we work with and live with will immediately take advantage of the path clearing we create for them? Of course not. But for those who are ready, it is an incredibly liberating, empowering gift. And it requires a lot less spent energy and effort than doing things for others who are not ready to do for themselves.

Imagine a world free of humanly-created obstacles; the bottled-up potential that would be unleashed. Imagine a world where we are no longer limited by our self-imposed impediments, and answers to our most long-standing problems begin to become evident. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that experience? What is keeping you and me from getting started on making this happen? Nothing that I can see…except self-interest and an inability to step back and appreciate the bigger picture. Want to improve your own life? Get the impediments out from under foot. Want to make the world a better place? Remove the obstacles holding others back.


I do hereby resolve, and I invite you to join me, to fill the coming year with obstacle removing; making sure not to create obstacles for others, and clearing paths wherever possible. It can make a difference far beyond our immediate capability to see…a gift that continues to pay itself forward…a gift of unlimited possibilities.

Thank you, Raj.

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