top of page

March 2014: Five Quotes

Sometimes, I find myself pondering and applying the words of others. Unlikely sources often prevail. Below are some ideas that have stayed with me, and that my readers might find useful:

“Every bowl has its capacity”

Iranian proverb

Comment: I hear much bemoaning about low confidence – in children, in employees and in leaders. This quote issues a warning, of sorts, about the other side of the confidence coin: leaders who think they can do more than they actually can do, who believe they are more important and indispensable than they actually are, who think they can burn the candle at both ends without unsavory consequences. In the world of reality, recognizing limits is every bit as important as striving for excellence. Yet talking about “limits” seems to be regarded as taboo, negative, even unpatriotic. It seems to me we are terrified of both our humanity and our mortality. Not accepting limits, how can we ever live – or die – with calmness and peace?


“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a (person) in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

Herbert Spencer, English biologist anthropologist and philosopher

Comment: Our airwaves and social media are ripe with daily examples of contempt prior to investigation. It’s likely that not a single instance of hating someone or something occurs without ignorance of who the hated person really is, or of what might really be going on in the hated situation. Until listening, exploring and investigating can gain a solid footing, it is safe to say that contempt is itself contemptible. Despising a person or viewpoint is cheap and easy. It takes far more rigor, neutrality and patience to investigate, while suspending judgment.


“In a pair of wasps, one is dominant, the other is subordinate. The dominant functions better than the solitary wasp. The subordinate functions worse than the solitary wasp.”

Dr. Raghavendra Gadagkar, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Bangalore, India President, Indian National Science Academy

Comment: This quote got me thinking about two questions I frequently get asked: (1) “Would it be smarter for me to launch my own business and risk failure, or to stay where I am in my organization and live with dissatisfaction?” (2) “Is it better for me to live alone or to live in an unfulfilling marriage? How would either choice impact our kids?” Some who investigate these questions have discovered that the real issue is not risk, dissatisfaction and unfulfillment, but being true to self. In what situation am I most able to become my best self? Occupying a one-down position in any relationship leaves one “de-selfed,” and vulnerable to emotional and physical symptoms. Maybe the wasps can teach us something.


“The unhealthy familiar provokes less anxiety than the healthy unknown”

John Michael Betz, Cincinnati-area Board Certified Chaplain

Comment: The power of the familiar probably outshines other variables that influence how we think, what we say and how we behave. Its power comes from the comfort it offers. Whether the issue is choice of foods, parenting style, or how to respond to another’s immaturity, our default position is the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes the familiar is healthy, but often, doing what we’ve always done keeps us stuck in a tangle. Choosing to do the opposite of “the unhealthy familiar” requires a slower pace that permits reflection on “What’s best?” rather than a mindless gravitation towards “What’s comfortable.” One’s ability to manage the short-term anxiety that usually accompanies “the healthy unknown” might be one of the most accurate markers of effective leadership.


“Sue Mineka, a primatologist who studied snake fear in monkeys, has shown that it’s the mother’s response to the snake fear that cues the infant’s anxiety, not the snake itself.”

Dr. Nathan Fox Director Child Development Laboratory, University of Maryland at College Park

Comment: Think of the implications if children are more likely to pick up on a parent’s response to a threat than to the threat itself! What’s the effect in the family of an over-exaggerated response to a routine issue? In organizations, what’s more influential, a customer problem, or the leader’s response to a customer problem? Might this quote help explain why tracking mud into the house could lead to two days of icy silence between marriage partners? Or why a leader so quickly caves into a whining employee? Or why two siblings wouldn’t speak for 20 years because one didn’t show up for a birthday party or failed to pay back a loan? How many wars are started, families torn apart and partnerships dissolved because one party is over-reacting to the over-reactions of the other?

7 Responses to “March 2014: Five Quotes”

  1. February 28, 2014 at 4:39 pm, Van L. Smith said:

The comments are right on .I like the last saying of wars in families over the love of things more than the love of families. I think of the division in our City right of the 2 Cities within 1. How we study the problems rather than bringing solutions that we have .

  1. February 28, 2014 at 4:41 pm, Van L. Smith said:

Right On the money

  1. March 01, 2014 at 11:44 am, Tim said:

I like the article and the use of quotes as they are sign posts to the collective wisdom of those whose words have stood the test of time.

This reminds me of a simpler more profound message, Plato’s allegory of the cave?

Kind regards

  1. March 01, 2014 at 1:53 pm, Stephanie Ferrera said:

John, Thanks for this gift of rich ideas. On the subject of dominant/subordinate dynamics, I refer you to Robert Sapolsky who has described the complexity of this process, which is reciprocal. Under certain conditions, the dominant position is advantageous, but under others, the subordinate. An important factor is whether one takes the position automatically, driven by fear and anxiety or by thoughtful choice. In some situations, one serves one’s family (or organization or self) best by deferring to others who are more qualified to take the initiative. In some situations, one serves best by stepping up to take charge based on merit and willingness to take responsibility. The hierarchy has evolved in nature as a way of reducing conflict in group living, and if you take the dominance (force) and subordinance (fear) out of it, the hierarchy is most useful.

  1. March 01, 2014 at 2:13 pm, F. Carl Mahoney said:

A nod of appreciation for your thoughtful contributions John. Just this morning, I was reading a lecture of Wm James, apropos of your Spencer quote.

“The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with our. No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.” ‘Talks to Students’ (1899)

  1. March 03, 2014 at 5:56 am, Paul said:

Fabulous list. Thought provoking. Good discussion starters. thank you John.

  1. March 28, 2014 at 1:48 am, Mercy Burton Russell said:

John, What a nice format for sharing ideas. Thank you. In thinking about hierarchical organization in groups, I have been interested in the role of anxiety in the group. I love the quote on your front page about the role of subordination emerging when the group is under stress to the individual who has earned the trust and proven their capacity for authority. Laurie Lassiter has presented on the features of leadership in the Chilean mining disaster highlighting that each miner believed that the emergent leader had their interests at heart, did not play favorites and did not take on the role as spokesperson for the group. Not so sure that wasps are navigating as many emotional variables!

bottom of page