What stops us being BOLD – The parable of UPS and DOWNS

Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s strapline is #BeBoldForChange. This got me thinking about what is bold and what stops us being bold. My simple view is that bold is ‘doing something even when you are sh***ing yourself!’ and one of the things that prevents us from being bold is when we feel ‘down’. Here is a lovely parable from Robert Terry about Ups and Downs

The Parable of Ups and Downs by Robert Terry

What makes an UP an UP and a DOWN a DOWN is that an UP can do more to a DOWN than a DOWN can do to an UP. That’s what keeps an UP UP and a DOWN DOWN. The UPS tend to talk to each other and study the DOWNS, asking the DOWNS about what’s UP, or what’s coming DOWN, for that matter. The DOWNS spend a lot of time taking the UPS out to lunch or dinner, to explain their DOWNNESS. The UPS listen attentively, often in amazement about the experiences of being a DOWN. They contrast one DOWN’S experience with another DOWN’S experience and usually don’t worry too much about what the DOWNS are UP to because the DOWNS never get together.

If they did, the UPS would have to shape UP.

After a while, the DOWNS weary of talking to the UPS. They tire of explaining and justifying their DOWNNESS.

They think, “If I have to explain my DOWNNESS one more time, I’ll throw UP.” And so they form a process which they call “networking and support groups.”

This act makes the UPS nervous. Three UPS together is a board meeting; three DOWNS a pre-revolutionary activity!

Some UPS hire DOWNS, dress them UP, send them DOWN to see what DOWNS are UP to. We sometimes call this “personnel and affirmative action.” This creates a serious problem for the DOWN who is dressed UP with no sure place to go. That DOWN doesn’t know whether he or she is UP or DOWN. That’s why DOWNS in the middle often burn out.

Sometimes what the UPS do to smarten UP is to ask the DOWNS to come in to a program one at a time to explain their DOWNNESS. UPS call this “human relations training.” OF course, the UPS never have to explain their UPNESS, that’s why they’re UPS rather than DOWNS.

There’s good news and bad news in this parable. The good news is, we’re all both UPS and DOWNS. There’s no such thing as a perfect UP or a perfect DOWN. The bad news is that when we’re UP it often makes us stupid. We call that “DUMB-UPNESS.” It’s not because UPS are not smart. It’s that UPS don’t have to pay attention to DOWNS the way that DOWNS have to pay attention to UPS. DOWNS always have to figure out what UPS are UP to. The only time UPS worry about DOWNS is when DOWNS get uppity, at which time they’re put DOWN by the UPS. The UPS’ perception is that DOWNS are overly sensitive; they have an attitude problem. It’s never understood that UPS are underly sensitive and have an attitude problem.

I used to think that when DOWNS became UPS they would carry over their insight from their DOWNNESS to their UPNESS. Not so. Smart DOWN—dumb UP.


What I love about this tale is that it is amusing and yet it makes a serious point.

In organisations it is often the ‘Downs’ who have the finger of the pulse of what’s going on, who probably have the insights about what is key to staying ahead of the curve, and yet it is often ‘Ups’ who are the leaders.

In the words of Robert Terry himself…

The tests for leadership are: Are we grasped by the injustice of the issues that need to be addressed? Are we in dialogue in up-down relationships so that we do not have blind spots? Are we in motion to address issues in collaboration with others?

Our goal is to get rid of arbitrary up-down power relationships. We should not have up-down relationships based on color, gender, or anything else that is arbitrary and capricious or has to do with how we’re born. Rather, we need to find ways to stand side-by-side, so that as we look out at the world together, we can eliminate any of the barriers that keep us from building an authentic, vibrant, human community.

The Parable of Ups and Downs exists in several versions. It appears in two books by Robert Terrry: Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action (ISBN 1-55542-547-X) and Seven Zones for Leadership: Acting Authentically in Stability and Chaos (ISBN 0-89106-158-4). Robert Terry was the President of Zobius Leadership International (formerly The Terry Group) and his work is now carried on by The AWL Group. You can find a shorter version of the parable at http://www.actionwheel.com/parableofupsanddowns.html

Thankyou also to Walt Hopkins, for helping me find the source of this parable.