No one likes to admit defeat, least of all the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU). But even this investigative outfit, famous for debunking tall tales told by consultants, has encountered a few nuts that its crack team simply couldn't, um, crack. This is the story of how one such nut led the CDU on a hunt to the wilds of Australia, through the African subcontinent, and thence deep into the heart of darkness — or, in this case, The Heart of Leadership: 12 Practices of Courageous Leaders (Executive Excellence Publishing, 2000), by consultant Robert E. Staub II.
The journey started at CDU headquarters, in the "X-Files," a drawer filled with notes on strange and inexplicable consulting phenomena. One of these files, No. 13, had been perplexing the CDU since 1994, when the CDU heard Ross Perot say to Larry King, "The big gorilla on the table right now is turning health care over to the federal government." Immediately, the CDU's misplaced-metaphor alarm went off! The phrase "the gorilla on the table" clearly suggested the existence of a very important, inescapable issue that, for various reasons, no one would discuss. The question for the CDU was this: If there were, literally, a gorilla on the table, how could you not discuss it? The CDU initiated an investigation — but no one would discuss it.
Then the CDU came across these words in Staub's book: "A maxim in big-game hunting states that the larger an animal is, the harder it is to see." The animal, Staub says, "is so obvious that it 'disappears' or is mistaken for something benign and familiar." His point: "Most of the time we are blind to the obvious, failing to see the forces that are actively shaping our ability to compete and succeed both today and tomorrow."
Could it be true? Had Staub provided the missing link? Could it be that the reason people don't discuss the gorilla on the table is that they just don't see it? By Staub's logic, the gorilla is so large and so obvious that it disappears, or is mistaken for something benign and familiar — say, a desk lamp. A gorilla mistaken for a lamp? Something smelled funny in the monkey house. Either the gorilla puzzle was solved, or Staub's "maxim" was, itself, a case for the CDU.
"At first, this seems like a ridiculous statement," Staub concedes in his book. "But it stands up to scrutiny when you take the science of perception into account. There is a strong tendency for the mind to turn a large, obvious entity into something familiar, blending it into the natural background. . . . A large grizzly at first glance or two might be taken to be a large bush or boulder. The hardest animal to see is an elephant!"
As it turns out, the hardest animal to see isn't an elephant — it's an elephant expert. The CDU sought to track down the renowned researcher and environmentalist Cynthia Moss, founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, finally locating her at her home near Amboseli National Park, in Kenya. Big game is one thing — Moss wasn't game at all. "You're making fun of elephants, and I won't participate," Moss said. The CDU tried to explain its scientific intentions, but, like the three blind men in the old story about the elephant, Moss turned a blind eye to the vision project, shouting, "I won't do it!"
The CDU refocused, and turned a keen eye on Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a pioneering elephant researcher who follows the herds in and around the Samburu National Reserve, in Kenya. Is it true that the larger an animal is, the harder it is to see? "That's ludicrous," said Douglas-Hamilton. "Large animals can't help but be conspicuous." So if an elephant doesn't hide in plain sight, where does it hide? "It goes into the brush. They're pretty hard to see when they do that."
The CDU decided to head into the brush itself. It bushwhacked its way to South Africa, where it caught up with Kruger National Park veterinarian Roy Bengis, who has worked for 22 years tending the park's baboons, buffalo, leopards, lions, rhinos, and other animals large and small. "I suppose that if you're a total inexperienced dilettante blundering around in the bush without paying attention, you could miss a big animal directly in front of you," Bengis said. "Otherwise, they're pretty hard to miss. There are so many clues: tracks, snorting and growling — not to mention the smell. Fresh elephant dung has a very strong odor. Elephant bulls that are in musth — when their testosterone levels are high, and they're going aggressively after the ladies — urinate on their back legs. That's an odor you absolutely can't miss, even from 200 or 300 meters away. Lions have a pungent predator odor. By the way, what should you do if an elephant charges?" What? "Take away his credit card," said Bengis.
The visit with Bengis had opened the CDU's eyes — and noses. In his book, Staub tells the story of how a NationsBank executive who was backpacking in the Rockies mistook a grizzly snoozing on the path for a boulder: "When he was within 50 yards, the boulder moved! What appeared to be an enormous grizzly roused itself and raised its head." Could it be that the NationsBank executive missed the bear not because he was overlooking the obvious, but because he was what Bengis called "a total inexperienced dilettante blundering around in the bush without paying attention?"
"That sounds about right to me," said legendary environmentalist, grizzly authority, and minor folk hero Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (Henry Holt & Co., 1990). The CDU had crossed two continents and an ocean to find Peacock, who lives on the edge of Yellowstone Park in Livingston, Montana. "The guy backpacking in the Rockies probably didn't see the grizzly because he wasn't familiar with the territory. People take their urban no-see, no-smell habits into the wild. If you're aware, a grizzly — even a sleeping grizzly — pretty much dominates the landscape. Grizzlies leave distinct tracks, and they leave big old caviar pies if they've been eating huckleberries. You can sometimes smell grizzlies, too — a wet-doggy smell."
Are large animals harder to see than small animals? "Unfortunately, no," said Peacock. "They're pretty visible, and they're easy prey for humans. Which is why so many of them are endangered."
Determined to leave no stone — or caviar pie — unturned, the CDU then traveled to Australia to speak with a specialist in seeing big animals: Tom Cowan, who has worked as the director of photography on six Imax films, including Africa's Elephant Kingdom, about elephants in Amboseli, and Panda: The China Adventure, about giant pandas in Szechuan, China. Cowan lives in Sydney, Australia, but was on location in the Snowy Mountains, where he was filming his sixth Imax film, Equus: The Story of the Horse. Did Cowan have any trouble seeing giant pandas? "No, they were very apparent, due to their size and color." Horses? "No, the horses were easy to see too." Elephants? "We saw those all the time, every day, plenty of elephants, all visible," he reported. "I suppose it is confusing, because other large things do disappear when elephants are around. For example, if an elephant stands in front of a truck, the truck disappears. Photographically speaking, though, the larger an animal is, the easier it is to see. I suppose if you painted the side of a building the same color as an elephant, the elephant would be less apparent. That sounds like a job for a consultant."
And what about Staub's claim that the science of perception supports his maxim? To get some insight on sight, the CDU paid a visit to David Heeger, a Stanford neuroscientist and psychologist who teaches "Psych 30: Perception" — the Stanford equivalent of Perception 101. In his laboratory work, Heeger uses MRI scans to study, among other things, illusions, misperceptions, pattern discrimination, and visual awareness.
"That's ridiculous," Heeger said of Staub's maxim. "You don't have to be a neuroscientist to figure out that it's easier to see big things than small things. But since you're asking, the data does confirm that the eye is more sensitive to coarse spatial scales than to fine-grained ones. An elephant, for example, is very easy for your ocular system to detect, because it's a coarse spatial scale and fills a large part of your visual field. And if the elephant is charging at you, it's doubly easy to see, because it's moving and changing over time." (The CDU passed on Bengis's credit-card tip to Heeger.)
Since the CDU was already at Stanford, it decided to see Professor Russell Fernald, who, it turns out, studies not only African animals but also the evolution of the eyes. Fernald pronounced Staub's maxim "Complete nonsense. So large buildings should disappear?" he asked rhetorically. "Animal camouflage evolved to fool particular eyes. Think about it: Leopards have spots to keep their prey from seeing them, not to keep predators from seeing them. Humans haven't been around long enough as major predators to have influenced the camouflage of animals. Big animals don't need camouflage, because they're big — they're dangerous. You can get away with being visible if you're big."
The answer, it appeared, was clearly visible. It may be true, as Staub writes, that "most of the time we are blind to the obvious," but in this case, what is obvious is that big animals are easy to see. And the unanswered question of the gorilla on the table and of X-File No. 13? It remains a mystery. But here's one word of advice: That huge, hairy, smelly lamp on your desk — don't try to turn it on. Beyond that, we can't talk about it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.