The Blind Pelican


Seeing the Truth in Organizational Stories

A few years ago, while vacationing in Mexico, we took a bus tour of the local sights. Our chatty tour guide was most entertaining; at every curve in the road, he had another story to share about the flora and fauna. The one that stuck with me, however, was about pelicans.

Pelicans are a common sight along the Pacific coast, soaring over the ocean as they scan the water for fish. One of the more distinctive pelican moves is their abrupt plunge-dive into a school of fish. Hitting the water with its open beak, the pelican traps fish and gallons of water in its pouch. Then it expertly sifts out the water, while retaining its catch.

A Deeper Dive

After describing the pelican’s fishing skills, the tour guide told us the sad fact that the plunge-diving for which the pelican is known causes extreme trauma to their eyes over time, resulting in detached retinas. Essentially blinded by its fishing method, the pelican eventually dies because it can no longer see its food source.

This story has stayed with me ever since that first visit to Mexico. I’ve returned several times and always look forward to seeing the pelicans doing their ocean dives, cognizant of their inevitable fate. I’ve shared the pelican tale with fellow tourists, who like me, marvel at the pelicans’ persistence.

A Twist to the Story

But, this year, the story took an unexpected turn when I found out –  it’s a myth!

The blind pelican parable is a popular one, circulated by ill-informed eco tour guides, among others. Ornithologists have been frustrated trying to counter this misinformation, but the “old blind pelican” saga persists. Scientists note they have survived for 40 million years virtually unchanged, rendering inconceivable that a successful species like the pelican would go blind and die of starvation by the mere act of feeding itself.

So, why does this story persist? Perhaps because the “hero” of the story is a sympathetic creature, continually trying to beat the odds. We root for the pelican to overcome the inevitable fate that awaits. While not a beautiful creature, we cheer on the resourceful, tenacious fellow.

Also, it’s a story that goes unchallenged because it sounds like it could be true. We hear it told by a tour guide, whom we assume is knowledgeable about local flora and fauna. Why shouldn’t we believe this plausible narrative from an informed source?

What’s your story?

If you’re wondering if there’s a point in here somewhere, it’s this: do you know what stories employees and customers tell about your organization simply because they sound reasonable and are seldom challenged? Are they true stories or are they “blind pelicans”?

More importantly, are the stories that people tell about your organization moving you forward or holding you back?

Organizations thrive when they seek to understand the stories that are being told by customers and employees about their experience; they contain important insights about what’s really going on in the company.

Stories are an expression of the soul of the organization. Have you engaged in some “soul searching” to ensure the stories being told about your organization – by employees and customers – are ones that contribute to a culture of high engagement, productivity and profitability? Is there a possibility that a few “blind pelicans” are flying about, influencing beliefs and actions?

Every organization is built on its stories. What are yours?

Tracey Wimperly