Recently at the conclusion of a large group that I facilitated, a participant approached. I was wondering who that mysterious person was flying around empowering our people. He said i just god you figured out. You were the ELVE of this event. You only appeared briefly on stage at the beginning but in the end we discovered you were the grand OD guy. In between you were so busy talking to individuals everywhere like the mysterious Elve. And that is one of the reasons, why this was so success full. You enabled our people to own and co-create this transformation.
And then i thought of working with Herb Shepard and his famous article on Elves.. Here it is:
THE GENERAL THEORY OF ELVES AND THE SPECIAL THEORY OF HOBGOBLINS by Herb Shepard
Herb shepard for those who do not know, was one in the core 12 or 20 of the founders of od. In fact, he coined the phrase OD at the same time Beckhard did. I wanted to get my phd from Herb at Case but he told me that program at the time was in disarray. He and 50 other key OD people told me to choose Pepperdine and I did. The rest is History. I loved Herb. His strength was individual development and did he love fun fun fun!!!! Now the words of HS.
An acquaintance of the great physicist Niels Bohr visited Bohr’s home and was surprised to see a horseshoe hung above his door. “I would not have expected a scientist like yourself to believe in horseshoes,” he said. Bohr replied, “I understand they bring you luck whether you believe in them or not.”
It’s much the same with elves. Bohr did not explain that the function of the horseshoe over the door is to protect the house from malicious spirits. But the elves to be described in this paper are friendly spirits and would be welcome in anyone’s home, more or less.
There are, in the literature and the oral traditions of all cultures, thousands of types of spirits with as many different names. By no means are all of them well disposed towards people. Elves were selected for study because they do care about humankind and are dedicated to the improvement of institutions and lives.
A few years ago, when the TV show “Mork and Mindy” was at the height of its popularity, Rolling Stone interviewed Robin Williams. ( roland comment: many people think I look like Robin Williams… I loved this tv show because Robin was zany like me and would stand on his head.. I have stood on my head daily since the 60’s) At the end of the conversation, the interviewer speculated about the causes of the show’s instant popularity. He reasoned that, since all of America’s institutions are in trouble and since the kind of trouble they are in does not yield to rational problem solving, America needs an elf. Mork fits the role of elf because of his novel perspective on human affairs and his way of “coming in from left field” to influence people and events.
This speculation triggered my own interest in elves and led me to take them seriously-as seriously as possible when contemplating creatures who act purposefully but do not take themselves seriously. The following is an account of what I have learned about them.
ELF ESSENCE The elf is best visualized as a bundle of life-loving energy with a large array of marvelous potentialities. Each elf has a few unique talents, which differentiate it from its elf-fellows. And though the term “visualized” was used, the fact is that elves in their naked state, are invisible to human beings.
ELF ENERGY Elves resemble extroverts-people who are energized by interacting with others-in their management of energy. They become energized through energizing each other. It takes only a small number of elves to develop the critical mass of energy required for the accomplishment of any mission, large or small. Because the experience of being together is so delightful, the energy they generate is by definition life-loving energy, it is rare for an elf to take on any project single-handedly. Besides, elves recognize that a typical project requires a combination of many talents if it is to be executed with elegance.
ELF STRATEGY Folklore has it that “when it comes to elves, there’s always more going on than meets the eye.” Elves understand the Chinese principles of war for example, that no campaign can succeed without both a direct and an indirect strategy. “What meets the eve” might be thought of as the direct strategy simply because it is visible. Just as often it is one of the indirect strategies, designed to distract the viewer’s attention form the direct strategy. Elves typically have multiple strategies based on a deep understanding of the inner workings of the institution they are bent on improving. They know what specific actions, in what sequence and in what parts of the institution can release the wisdom and positive energy need for improvement.
ELF COSTUMES Elves love costumes. Every elf has a large and varied wardrobe with another new costume in it every day. Each elf has a few favorite costumes, which it wears with unique grace, but it delights in learning to wear new ones. And if it puts a new costume on backwards by mistake, it laughs as much as its audience does. Much as they love them, elves do not really take costumes seriously. Well, they do and they don’t. Elves regard the wearing of costumes as an art form; and like any great actor or actress, they wear them to the hilt. But also like a great actor or actress, they wear a given costume only to accomplish a particular purpose; and when that purpose has been served, the costume is put back in the closet. Just as the actor knows that he is not the person he was portraying, so the elf knows that it is not its costume.
One of my friends, interested in trying to find some relevance in all this to human affairs, offered what may be a helpful metaphor: “Your elf is yourself without the ‘s’ and the ‘s’ stands for ‘shit’. The elf’s costumes do not get stuck to the elf the way person’s costumes tend to get stuck to the person and become a self-image. Hence the elf has no problems of self-esteem, self-doubt, self-denial or self-centeredness to distort its vision or cripple its action. Like the human infant, the elf is simply a life-loving bundle of energy with a large array of marvelous potentialities, though the elf has a larger wardrobe than an infant does. Recalling that an elf without any costume on, a naked elf, is invisible to human eyes, you can imagine how costumes of various kinds combined with the capacity for being invisible can be used by a group of elves for learning about people and institutions and influencing them. Being visible permits and elf to learn certain things about an institution. Different costumes will permit it to learn different things from the people of the institution, but any costume will cause people to hide or be dishonest about some things. Invisibility enables the elves to make observations that greatly enrich their understanding of the inner workings of the institution, and hence can lead to the development of more powerful strategies. The elfish abilities demystify some other common beliefs about elves. The fact that elves are often observed as individuals operating alone is part of an elfin strategy. The other elves are present or nearby, but invisible. Elves appear to have an uncanny ability to appear at a given moment in a particular place and to do something “spontaneously” that makes a substantial difference in what’s been happening. There is nothing uncanny or magical about this unexpected but timely event: they have been there all along, waiting for a moment like this.
ELF ILLUSIONS Thus elves understand the power of illusion. And their use of it to influence humankind is best illustrated by “fairylands.” A fairyland is a carefully designed illusion. The common visual description of a fairyland is a large, magnificently decorated and lighted room, filled with enchanting music and elves in beautiful costumes dancing. A person or group of people entering this unreal world will have experiences that are real in their consequences. The person or group may learn something that profoundly affects their lives and relationships in the real world. The elves use the setting they have created simply as an attractive environment within which events occur that human visitors get caught up in a become transformed in some way. Not in a random way, the elves design the events to accomplish particular purposes. When the visitors leave, the fairyland is quickly dismantled or like and elf disrobing, suddenly disappears. As with their costumes, the elves take fairyland seriously as an art form but have no difficulty letting go of them.
ELF MISCHIEF Elves are notoriously “mischievous.” They are everywhere and into everything. There’s always more going on than meets the eye, and they change their costumes to suit their every and ever-changing purpose. They appear and disappear with an uncanny sense of timing and bring endless excitement, variety, terror, delight, and mischief into the lives of those who are fortunate enough to be linked to them. What appears to be simply “mischief” is the elves’ way of startling or awakening people to a new vision, a different way of feeling about their own lives, a novel perspective on events or a more useful understanding of their situation. A “Fairy Market” is one place where people can have upsetting and enlightening experiences. The literature tells of a person who exchanged something of value in a fairy market and was given in return a sealed package with instructions not to open it before reaching home. On returning home, the package was found to contain only dead leaves, and he felt cheated. He left the open package on the kitchen table and the next morning the leaves had turned to gold. This case is a good illustration of the elves’ tendencies to use indirection, ambiguity and puzzles and at the same time to use them strategically, carefully designed for a specific situation. The person in this case was neurotically pre-occupied with possessions, and the fairy market transaction was one of a series of events that, together, enabled him to transcend this limitation.
ELF LIMITS In their efforts to improve human institutions and live, the elves employ all the methods described above creatively and elegantly. But in trying to fulfill their purposes, there are certain kinds of actions they will not take. Startling and upsetting people into new awarenesses they see as legitimate and morally defensible. But if the means for improving lives and institutions would entail at some stage the use of cruelty, deceit, fraud, manipulation or force, elves would not employ those means. They would search for harmless ways, even if these were only partially effective or totally ineffective. Eventually, such cases are turned over to hobgoblins.
HOBGOBLIN ESSENCE Whereas elves are caring and innocent in their dealings with people, goblins are the most evil and malicious of all the spirits. A person may get a good bargain at the fairy market, but in a goblin market the goblins will try to feed the person poisoned fruit. Hobgoblins are the offspring of elves’ mating with goblins. The elfin infusion causes the hobgoblin to be kindly disposed toward humankind. (the prefix “hob” means good.) However, they also have the goblin infusion, which might be thought of as the dark side of the elves. They know both good and evil and are capable of both.
HOBGOBLIN WORK In their willingness to resort to evil means in order to reach good ends, hobgoblins are continually confronted with the task of assessing, weighing, balancing-in short, with a cost-benefit analysis. They would agree with the Chinese perspective on war, that the only good war is one in which nobody gets hurt. But they also know that things can get out of hand. They often have to deal with wars, among other things, in which some people will get hurt. They have to make some hard choices. Sending a care package is an elfin choice. Destroying a Vietnam village in order to save it is a goblin choice. Deciding which houses will be allowed to bur, in order to save the rest of the community is a hobgoblin choice. Trickery, fraud, deception and manipulation are readily used if the elves are capable of being tricky and manipulative as an extension of their love of mischief. But force is sparingly and reluctantly used. Some people believe that what is called “hobson’s Choice” was originally “hobgoblin’s Choice,” for it is true that hobgoblins sometimes design situations in the form of “an offer you can’t refuse.”
ELF LESSONS Learning from the elves is difficult and easy. Since they love ambiguity and indirection, they mostly present us with puzzles, conundrums, dilemmas, paradoxes and predicaments. They oblige us to learn by inventing our way out of the dilemmas, finding ways of turning unpleasant predicaments into pleasant ones, transcending the paradoxes and getting the insights whereby we can solve the puzzles. And the principles we may deduce from these adventures are as metaphorical as the elves.
Printed by permission of Herb Shepherd prior to his death. Given to Roland from one of Herb’s students: T. Seamon.